‘Phantom Thread’ Is the Love Story for Assholes We’ve All Been Waiting For
Paul Thomas Anderson’s film celebrates the petty tussles of love
I f you’ve ever been to a wedding, you’re likely to have heard the following lines wistfully recited by a teary-eyed bridesmaid reading from a perfectly embossed cue card printed by the bride: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” Or perhaps you’ve gotten to see a best man reach back to his English major roots to serenade the happy couple with the Bard’s wedding-themed sonnet: “Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds,/Or bends with the remover to remove.” These words, staples of nuptial readings, hope to both invoke and describe the union being celebrated. Their rose-colored (or, rosé-colored) vision of love feels self-evident — love is obviously kind, Karen. But this Hallmark ideal of “love,” which is also “not self-seeking, it is not easily angered,” and, “is an ever-fixed mark/That looks on tempests and is never shaken” does us all a disservice. Much like the ideals of romance that Hollywood tends to lob our way, these images of love oppress in their implausibility. Some of us aren’t as patient and kind. Nor are we as easy to love as these anodyne readings would have us aspire to be. How dispiriting then to have to preclude oneself from these capital-L love stories.
Those hollow if hallowed banalities came flooding back while watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread — mostly because the entire film seems hellbent on snidely snickering at such naive if aspirational ideas of romantic love. It may well be the perfect swoon-worthy paean to romance between two equally-matched pricks I didn’t know we needed. Turns out, it is possible to make a romantic movie about love relationship that’s not exactly exploitative—at least not in the expected ways—but nevertheless hinges on quite appalling behavior from both parties involved.
Reynolds Woodcock, the charmingly cantankerous fashion designer played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is not someone you’d describe as patient nor humble, and most of what he alters are hems and sleeves. He’s a perfectionist when it comes to his work and he doesn’t suffer fools, holding both those who make and wear his designs to the same high standards — at one point he all but yanks a dress off a woman whom he feels is disrespecting his gorgeous gown. One doesn’t envy the person who chooses to be with him, and yet the film gives us not the story of such a woman, but has us rooting for them both by the time the credits roll.
“Reynolds has made my dreams come true,” Alma (Vicky Krieps) tells us in the opening moments of the film, “and I have given him what he desires most in the world…every piece of me.” As an introduction to the power dynamics at play, the line all but demands you be horrified. Warmly lit by the fire and placidly looking at her off-screen interlocutor (a doctor, we find out later), this young woman comes off as perfectly happy and pliable. We’re not given any indication of what her dreams may have been — surely just getting to be by Reynolds’ side — but that she’s so happy to have paid such a high price for them is discomfiting. When Anderson then cuts to images of the fastidious Reynolds getting ready in the morning, applying face cream, brushing his hair, pulling his socks up, adjusting his pants, you fear this will be yet another tale of a brilliant but difficult man strong-arming women into submission.
You fear this will be yet another tale of a brilliant but difficult man strong-arming women into submission.
The tyrannical man and his ever-doting wife may well be a story as old as time — would she then come to domesticate him or would she merely learn to bow and genuflect? — but once we see the idyllic meet-cute between the young waitress-turned-muse/model Alma and Reynolds (she stumbles, he smiles) the film hints that the prickly love affair that ensues will be something much more entrancing. He is imperious and demanding. This is what he orders for breakfast: Welsh rarebit with a poached egg on top (not too runny!), bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam (not strawberry!), lapsang tea, and some sausages. She, on the other hand, is accommodating, letting him keep the order form where she’d just jotted down all of this, blushing at his clear advances though showing she’s no wilting wallflower when she hands him a note with her name on it addressed to “the hungry boy.”
The infantilizing nickname, not to mention the unavoidable connection Alma makes between Reynolds and his hunger, give her a welcome sense of agency. She’s coy but also cutting. She may wince when, on their first date, he takes her measurements and offhandedly comments that she has no breasts. “It’s my job to give you some,” he adds. “If I choose to.” But she keenly understands how someone so boisterously insecure as Reynolds needs to be handled. She no doubt takes her cue from his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who appeases her brother when she needs to but reveals herself to be just as deliciously cold as Reynolds can get. “Don’t pick a fight with me,” she advises him at one point, without even batting an eyelash. “You certainly won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor. Understood?”
To love Reynolds is to bear the brunt of his unkind behavior, suffering through breakfast quarrels, dinner spats, and occasional bratty outbursts. But to live with him is to find ways of going on the offensive without resorting to those very same tricks. Lest she be mistaken for a compliant little girl who’ll merely turn the other cheek and soon be discarded — like the young woman who’s dating Reynolds at the start of the film and gets summarily dismissed as if her contract work at the house had been fulfilled — Alma soon finds ways to stand up to her lover. She does so with kindness, yes, but with a kindness that’s rooted in cruelty.
Like some witch in a grim (and perhaps Grimm) fairy tale, this beatific beauty actually goes ahead and poisons Reynolds with mushrooms she picks herself. It’s her way of dominating him, her way of claiming supremacy within the domestic space of the kitchen while also indulging in his most base desires. The “hungry boy” is punished by the very means he was ensnared. Earlier in the film, knowing she still has an unwavering grip on his wants, she asks him if he’s had enough to eat (“you seem thirsty,” she adds), appropriating the language of consumption to lead them giddily into the bedroom. That the film frames this gesture as romantic — Alma gets to be the one to take care of Reynolds, nursing him back to life, and quieting his insufferable bouts of arrogance — offers a radical image of what love can be between two people. Perhaps not one worth emulating, but one worth witnessing in mirth and horror from afar. Marrying its bombastic score (provided by Anderson staple, Jonny Greenwood) with its rom-com trappings (its comedy is more mordant than usual for the genre, but one can’t deny the fact that Anderson takes us from meet-cute to makeover to domestic rift to a happy reconciliation in ways that feel decidedly familiar), Phantom Thread begs to be understood not as realism or didacticism but as mythic and archetypal. At first offering a portrait of the toxicity of masculine bravado, which Reynolds outright admits is mostly a front, Phantom Thread ends up telling the story of a couple who finds tenderness in cruelty and who looks on tempests with the eagerness of a storm-chaser.
At first offering a portrait of the toxicity of masculine bravado, Phantom Thread ends up telling the story of a couple who finds tenderness in cruelty.
Though the film warps it into something twisted, Anderson says that his inspiration was a genuinely tender moment with his wife. “I was very, very sick in bed one night,” he told the audience at a Q&A in New York back in November of last year. “And my wife looked at me with a love and affection that I hadn’t seen in a long time. So I called Daniel [Day-Lewis] the next day and said, ‘I think I have a good idea for a movie.’” Only, if you’ve seen the film, you know Anderson turned that joyous moment of domestic bliss — his wife Maya Rudolph staring at the father of her four children with an affection she always harbors but perhaps rarely shows so nakedly — into a kinky, near-sadistic confrontation that’s as much about affection as it is about power. “I want you flat on your back,” she tells him the second time she serves him the poisoned mushrooms which he then gladly and knowingly ingests. “Helpless, tender, open with only me to help,” she continues. “And then I want you strong again. You’re not going to die. You might wish you’re going to die, but you’re not going to. You need to settle down a little.” She not only stands up to him but, crucially, makes him lie down. Reynolds may yell and abuse her even when she tries to do kind things for him like bringing him tea (“I didn’t ask for tea,” he mutters in exasperation) but she’s unconcerned, eventually realizing that if she shows weakness she’ll be easily replaced. After unsuccessfully trying to ingratiate herself to him, she opts to assert her power in as unassuming but effective a way as she can.
Alma dangles the power she has over Reynolds not to scold or abuse him but to show him just how much she loves him. To love a man, in the world of Phantom Thread, is to know how and when to weaken him, how to help him settle down a bit, how to defang him long enough for him to be thankful you’re there to build him back up. That sounds very intense until one puts it in romantic terms we’re more comfortable celebrating: “I’d trust you with my life.” “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick,” Reynolds tells her in the flush of desire he feels when finishing his poisoned meal. And in that sentence, which empowers, belittles, demands, and relents, I heard yet again another romantic truism taken to the extreme: you must be vulnerable, you must be open to one another. Actually, Alma doesn’t just require it, she demands it — in her own twisted way. As a literal coupling Reynolds and Alma should make you wary, but as metaphorical avatars for romantic love, they’re not as monstrous as they sound.
To love a man, in the world of Phantom Thread, is to know how and when to weaken him.
This is the kind of romance I wish were more exalted at wedding receptions. The kind where the fight for one another’s submission is an ever-swaying see-saw that requires constant attention. The kind where kindness in spirit if not in action fuels the fiery embers of desire. Except that just makes me sound like I’m advocating for consensual poisoning as a necessary element of modern-day romance—or, worse yet, hoping bridesmaids and best men make sure to remind the couple how toxic their life together may yet become. This is not, in fact, Anderson’s point, nor mine. But the argument of the film, mushrooms aside, focuses on the effort that goes into making a relationship work, especially one that still functions within gendered archetypes (artist/muse).
What Phantom Thread does away with is the asinine image of romance as mere bliss. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Grand Guignol of a rom-com acknowledges and represents love affairs that make room for petty tussles and bratty spats. Not as things that should be brushed (or blushed) aside, but as reinvigorating elements that strengthen one’s bond, that help one negotiate how to live with one another. At the end of the film, Alma daydreams about a future together where she’ll finally understand Reynolds, charting a course for their life as a couple as striving for more balance, an endless deferral of the unattainable ideal of romance those nuptial readings prescribe. “Yes, but right now we’re here,” Reynolds tells her as he rests in her lap, bringing her back to the push-and-pull dynamic they’ve come to master, “and I’m hungry.”