Phantom Thread Imagines A Battle Between Artist and Muse

Hello, everyone! I watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread twice last week. The first viewing left be impressed but emotionally unmoved, the second viewing left me more impressed, but still unmoved. But I was at last able to grasp the themes from the film that eluded me on first viewing, so I must say, if you watch Phantom Thread once, you’re going to need to watch it again, since it’s a quiet, ethereal, and somewhat vague film that deserves to be appreciated. If you like films with the pacing and beauty of a slow waltz, you’ll probably love this film. If you’re expecting a movie about the intricacies of the world of 1950s haute couture, prepare to be disappointed. Phantom Thread isn’t a film about fashion, but a film about artistry and control. As a backdrop, however, you could do worse than a 2 hour movie filled with the stunning Vicky Krieps swanning around in ball gowns.

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Synopsis: Reynolds Woodcock, fashion designer of the wealthy and famous, lives exactly according to his fussy whims. But when he meets Alma, a young waitress in the English countryside, he becomes enamored and whisks her away to live in his house in London. Although Alma is initially in awe of Reynold’s glamorous lifestyle and prodigious talent, she becomes discontent with his lifestyle and attempts to change him.

My take: In the very first scene of the film, Alma tells a young doctor that she has given Reynolds “what he desires most…every piece of me.” The importance of this first quote isn’t evident until perhaps the penultimate scene of the film, where Alma prepares an omelette with poisoned mushrooms in full view of Reynolds, and then after serving it to him, tells him that she wants him “flat on [his] back, open, tender, and with only [her] to help.” On first viewing, I wondered “when did this become a film about Munchausen-by-proxy syndrome?” But on second viewing I realized that Alma didn’t poison Reynolds to gain control over him, but to force him to accept all of her love, and all of her person.

It’s a heavy sentiment for a movie to carry, especially a film that on the surface feels as gauzy and weightless as one of Reynold’s gorgeous gowns. The film is mostly quiet, all of of the humor and conflict represented with dry one-liners or passive aggressive glances. The most explosive scene is as hilarious as it is alarming, the sudden decibel raise enough to shock any viewer from their mesmerized state. Anderson’s tone is hard to pin down: are we supposed to find Phantom witty or disquieting? Fascinating or peculiar? A love story or a horror story? Or maybe, all of those things at once?

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In terms of the film’s cinematic qualities, it’s a beauty. The palette is composed of soft blues, greys, maroons, and pinks, and the lighting is phenomenal. There’s nothing ugly to to see in Phantom Thread, even if there is plenty of ugliness to be had between characters. Most exceptional is the score by Radiohead’s lead guitarist (yes, you read that right) Jonny Greenwood, whose sweeping, eerie, piano-laden themes are omni-present throughout the film. Such frequent scoring might weigh down a lesser film, but Phantom‘s airy visuals prevent that problem.

As I said above, Phantom isn’t about fashion in the same way that a film like The Devil Wears Prada is. It doesn’t revere the craft, nor devote scenes to ogling Woodcock’s masterpieces. In my opinion, Reynolds could have been a painter, a photographer, a filmmaker, and the essence of the story would remain the same. Even though the intimacy of clothing Alma adds a special layer of control between her and Reynolds, their artist-muse relationship is ubiquitous enough to have applied to any art form.

But even though the artist-muse relationship has been told in films before, Anderson makes his story unique by looking beyond the basic question of why an artist needs a muse to the deeper one: why does a muse need an artist? We know that even though Reynolds says at one point that he doesn’t need Alma, his dependency on her is clear. Reynolds has been influenced by domineering women his whole life, from his mother, whose ghost still haunts him, to his sister, who runs his business. His need for a woman’s influencing hand is clear to Alma from the moment she meets him when she writes “to the hungry boy” on a napkin. He is like a child to her, someone to be coddled, but also to be told when to “settle down.” When they sit across each other after their first date, Alma warns him, half joking, that “if he wants to have a staring contest, he will lose.” She sees exactly who he is, and despite his exterior, Alma knows that he is “not tough.”

For me, the most perplexing part of the film is the question that Anderson tries to answer. Why does Alma stay with Reynolds? During the explosive dinner scene, Reynolds asks Alma if she is an “assassin come to ruin his dinner” and tells her to “fuck off back to where she came from.” I thought that she just might. But Alma doesn’t leave him, instead resorting to poisoning him to get him to “settle down.” From Reynolds we know that he uses Alma to inspire his art and to give him the creativity he needs to survive. But what does Alma get from him? A man to care for and control? The chance to inspire art? Or perhaps the ability to become more than just a woman to Reynolds, to become his life’s essence? I admire the fact that Anderson doesn’t answer this question. He leaves a lot of puzzle pieces for the viewer to assemble into their own answer. That’s the sign of a confident director and a confident film.

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Final Consensus: Phantom Thread is a subtly powerful film about artistry and the complexity of the relationship between artist and muse. Although such stories have been told before, Paul Thomas Anderson explores the root of the issue with his nuanced and darkly elegant film. Although at first viewing the film might seem slow and uneventful to the point of boring, I’d recommend giving it a second chance. Like a beautifully made dress,  the details  will reveal themselves with time.

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