Phantom Thread and the Limitations of Passion

Phantom Thread and the Limitations of Passion

Photo via Focus Features

By Sam Fuhrer

“Is that what love is? Using people? And maybe that’s what hate isnot being able to use people.” Tennessee Williams, Suddenly Last Summer.

Paul Thomas Anderson collaborated with Daniel Day Lewis to create Phantom Thread, their second film together since There Will Be Blood. They spoke throughout the entire writing process and obsessively researched the high fashion culture in 1950’s London. The film unfolds in a baroque setting, and follows the life of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), a mid-century couturier living in an extraordinary London townhouse, working tirelessly to execute dresses for elite patrons.

The film is breathtakingly beautiful and the dresses are placed elegantly throughout the set enlivening the Neoclassical period, making it tangibly relatable. Daniel Day Lewis, who is known for his method acting approach, apprenticed in the costume department for the New York City Ballet to prepare for the part. He also learned to sew and recreated a Balenciaga dress from scratch. The story is rumored to be based on the real life of the maniacal designer, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and follows Reynolds, an artist with a feverous and obsessive passion. Reynolds is driven to work into the early hours of the morning, and then wake up before dawn to start again. This dedication and focus catapults him to the upper echelons of society, and earns him clients ranging from royalty, celebrities and world leaders.

Reynolds’s sister, Cyril Woodcock (Lesley Manville) runs the business side of things. She is a merciless leader who manages client relationships, makes sure all employees complete their assignments in a timely manner, and that Reynolds performs at a high level. The two trust each other’s taste and are mutually dependent in operating the entity.

Early in the film, Reynolds picks his latest muse up in a country restaurant. Alma (Vicky Krieps) is a flush and fair skinned girl from Luxembourg, who flirtatiously waits on Reynolds’s table. He blows her away with his considerable appetite and courts her into leaving the small town for a more dynamic life in a big city.

After taking her to dinner that same night, he performs a polished act of seduction, bringing her to his study to model a dress. He informs her that despite what she may think, her features are perfect for modeling. Alma’s life instantly changes and she moves into the townhouse to stay in the room right next door to his. She is confused as to whether she is invited romantically, or specifically for Woodcock’s artistic fulfillment. She is expected to be a submissive and passive character in Reynolds’s life, existing only to contribute to his latest projects, bring him tea, only when asked for, and applying affection when it is called upon. If she acts out of place she is abusively ridiculed and reprimanded.


Despite the attempts to shame and tame her, Alma refuses to let herself fade into the background, and never misses a chance to assert herself. Ultimately, this gains respect from both Reynolds and Cyril, and she is thrusted deeper into their inner circle.

Alma and Reynolds start seeing each other intimately, and early on it becomes clear that the relationship is imbalanced. All the power leans towards Reynolds, who has an established career and dominant position within the exclusive fashion industry. Alma, an expatriate nobody, who waited tables at a small inn will not let herself fall victim to being on the sidelines of the Woodcock’s illustrious life. She announces herself at breakfast, buttering her toast as if she’s sanding a wood floor, and pouring her tea to the affect of an Amazonian waterfall.

One evening, Alma feels comfortable enough to do something that she thinks Reynolds will find special, and asks Cyril to empty the house. She creates an intimate evening for just her and him, in order to get him alone and offer what she has, time and kindness.

This surprise does not amuse Reynolds in the slightest. He attempts to restrain his anger, which slowly escalates at the sensuous dinner.

“You’re doing this because you think I don’t need you,” Reynolds says, after accusing her of being a spy sent to murder him. There is nothing so humiliating as a pure act of kindness interpreted as manipulation. Alma, who is not accustomed to the language and practices of this social group, asks why he always plays games, and can’t just refer to people normally.

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The film violently dissects class and the strife between different countries and generations. Is Alma’s affection out of place, and is her way of being selfish just as damaging as Reynolds’s character is to her? Alma begins to resent Reynolds for lacking appreciation of the sacrifices she’s made, and in a beautifully underplayed rage, she slips poisonous mushrooms into his tea. This leaves Reynolds sick and bedridden, too weak to work and focus on anything but his own state of health. Alma now has the ability to spend time alone with Reynolds, and can care for him while everyone else is too busy.

Phantom Thread is a study of torturous agony from a didactic man, who is racing against time and death to produce something of mythological beauty. Alma worships Reynolds, but is heartbroken when she is not able to penetrate his attention or gain his adoration the way he treats the current projects he works on. The film examines work-life balance and the limitations of genius, questioning to what extent a savage work ethic is productive or destructive to those around us. Reynolds aspires to create ultimate beauty, while Alma aspires to gain Reynolds’s adoration. Just because we want something doesn’t mean we can have it, and life has a funny way of emphasizing our shortcomings. Ultimately the film winds up being about recognizing our own weaknesses and making sacrifices to those we love.


*Re-published per Author’s Request

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