Phantom Thread (2017) is a meditative masterpiece that casts a poetic spell on obsession, toxic love, and masculinity. Among all the films in Paul Thomas Anderson’s oeuvre, Phantom Thread distinguishes itself with its sheer unambiguity and harmonious pace. It tells the story of a renowned haute couture dressmaker, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), thriving in the mundanity of his life and unblemished reputation. Set in the post-WWII era, the film tells the riveting tragic drama of its self-conceited protagonist obsessed over perfection and his lover Alma, played by Vicky Krieps. Everything seems perfect and immaculate until Alma, the damsel in distress, demands Reynold’s undivided attention and care.
Much like the protagonists in every other PTA film, Reynolds Woodcock is a man who lives by his own rules and embodies a pedantic, workaholic nature. Reynolds lives with his sister in a palatial house pervaded with fashion paraphernalia, jargon, seamstresses, and materials. The film solemnly aims to impart the psyche of its multi-layered protagonist, his unremitting routine, and the glory and glitter of the fashion world with a tinge of discomfort. What makes Reynolds Woodcock stand out is his incorrigible scrupulous nature, culminated with his narcissistic approach towards work and people. We seldom see films like Phantom Thread where the narrative is codependent on its immutable protagonist, which makes the film a hypnotic conundrum.
In the film, Reynolds Woodcock is a self-conceited, nihilistic misanthrope who dances upon being the most celebrated fashion designer of his time. Albeit the meticulous lifestyle he built with his elder sister—there is no place for outsiders—Reynolds constantly seeks love to alleviate his loneliness. The film treads lightly toward an endless destination, but the transcendental soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood assures us that irrespective of the destination, the journey is remarkably sumptuous. The film perfectly depicts the fragility of an artist with great precision, and its veracity can only be tested by the repercussions it begets when an artist's attention towards art is spiked by love.
Into the assiduously engineered lifestyle and strict routine enters Alma (an enchanting waitress) when Reynolds goes on a ride in the countryside on hiatus. Overwhelmed by the work pressure and insatiable thirst for perfection, Reynolds finds solace in Alma’s soothing demeanor and offers her a place in his house. There is a dialogue in the film said by Alma that goes, “In his work I become perfect, maybe that’s how all the women feel in his clothes,” which encapsulates the poignance of the film and its characters. Through Phantom Thread, PTA aces the formula of being translucent and opaque at the same time—the characters tell something but show something different. This is the story of a man who needs to be loved but is incapable of giving it back. Or maybe it is the story of a woman who knows how to be loved by hook or by crook. Irrespective of how we perceive the film, it is a transcendental story of love played out by flawed lovers. What appears to be an artistic rendition of Shakespeare's love story soon descends into a mad quest for power over each other in this gothic tale. The film uses the advent of Alma brilliantly to shed light on the narcissistic nature of Reynolds, shadowed by his reputation. The narrative of the film is aimed at conveying the plight of being alienated through the eyes of Alma, who miscalculates Reynolds's attention toward her.
The film renders no plausible explanation or glorifies the deeds of the protagonist, who is a genius dressmaker; rather, it chooses to question the indomitable patriarchy and the concurring effects of being selfish. All the characters in the film embody gray shades, each with their own set of motives. While Reynolds Woodcock revels in his artistry and meticulously crafted routine, his counter-partner desires happiness in recognition and love—something that can only be attained through gloomy actions. The film might be a period tale, but it speaks volumes about the toxic relationships fostered by many couples in today’s generation. There is a strong commentary hidden under the soothing tale of love and deceit that PTA succeeds in conveying towards the end of the film, i.e., if love can’t be earned, it can be demanded.
Embraced by the inimitable performances of the nonpareil Daniel Day-Lewis and flawless Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread emanates a thick sense of tragedy right from its overture, and rightfully so, it ends up becoming one. Towards the end of the film, it feels as if the couple exchanged each other's traits only to spin this gothic romance back to its beginning. It is one of the best and most commendable works by Paul Thomas Anderson, who uses the film to openly condemn the patriarchy by using toxic love and obsession as emissaries. Phantom Thread is a classic PTA film smeared with the filmmaker’s knack for psychological and artistic amalgamation to tell a linear story of pure love with impure characters.