On Power and Pleasure in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Phantom Thread’

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a film about the intractability of control in the face of interior and exterior emotional conditions that seek to, dually, nurture and destroy it. The two protagonists, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), are polar opposites in age, status and profession, and yet they are drawn together by work and, more importantly, a mutuality of temperament; a relentless desire to control a situation. The focal relationship is not so much a union as a collision course, a power struggle between two people who love and respect each other in totality, but for myriad reasons remain too stubborn to truly cede their power in the way that true love frequently necessitates. When viewed with this in mind, Phantom Thread is a borderline traditional romance about two dysfunctional people learning to live with one another.

Early moments establish that Reynolds is a renowned fashion designer. The man has a good relationship with his client Henrietta Harding (Gina McKee); he remembers the names of his staff and seemingly exists in symbiosis with his primly presented sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville). Reynolds has a younger partner, Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), with whom things seem to have run their course; she offers him a Danish pastry, which he declines coldly, and when she asks him where he’s gone, he issues the brittle missive that he can’t start his day with a confrontation. There are, in Phantom Thread’s opening stretch, two shots of Cyril staring almost directly at the viewer; one is a withering look at Johanna, the other is to nobody in particular as she readies her face to greet the Countess who is coming to pick up her dress. While Reynolds immediately seems fastidious and composed as an individual, Cyril comes across almost as his minder; she is the one who suggests that he end things with Johanna, offering to take care of the particulars.

There is a surplus of luxury and extravagance on display in Phantom Thread, both within the siblings’ home and within their meticulously upheld routines, which Anderson relishes over in close-ups of faces, hot mugs of tea, platters of pastries, needles, fabric and clothing. This visual splendor is not matched in the character interactions, which are marked by familiarity but not warmth. Cyril and Reynolds feel closed off and emotionally insular; it’s as if they are making up for the ineluctable sway of emotions by sticking, dogmatically, to a set text of behavioral codes and practices. The first concession to recognizable human behavior arrives 10 minutes in when Reynolds declares that he is thinking of his deceased mother and has a persistent uneasy feeling. Cyril suggests that he travel to the country, and says that she’ll join him later. 

Before Cyril arrives, Reynolds meets Alma as she is waitressing in a café. His breakfast order, hilarious in its extravagance and unwieldiness, gives way to the offer of a date, which gives way to a fitting session for a dress, which blossoms uneasily into a relationship of sorts between the pair. Even from the start, Reynolds and Alma can be snippy, barbed and unpleasant. Day-Lewis’ character is used to petulantly trampling his way through relationships (with the exception of Cyril), but his love interest is equally headstrong and counters him at each turn. Anderson does a clever thing in Phantom Thread by underlining the various verbal clashes with wit and precisely engineered comic timing. In one exchange, Alma complains about a fabric and gets verbally rebutted by both Cyril and Reynolds. This leads to a back-and-forth conversation about taste, with Alma insisting that her taste is perfectly fine. Reynolds, in a fit of frustration, barks “stop”; many exchanges conclude in this manner, leading viewers to question why the protagonists love each other. At one point, Alma says pridefully, in an ambiguous framing interview which reoccurs through the film, that she can stand for hours, for longer than anyone else; her love of Reynolds’ work and her faith in its greatness is never in doubt. One particularly excruciating scene at a high-profile wedding all but confirms this, as Alma forcefully reclaims a dress that has been besmirched by one of Reynolds’ wealthiest clients, Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris). 

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Phantom Thread Movie Essay - 2017 Paul Thomas Anderson Film

Although Phantom Thread is astute enough not to directly instruct the viewer of Alma’s true feelings, it is unavoidable (particularly upon rewatching the film) that she is displaced, which is the driving narrative force. Indeed, Alma’s insistence that she belongs in the House of Woodcock is perhaps the only truly realized desire within the story. While Anderson is unafraid of politics, any political statement proceeds (as do most things in his films) from character. Phantom Thread does not aim for the kind of critique that is found in, say, The Master (which seems to disassemble the power structure of cults from the inside, all whilst mirroring the fractured mindset of the broken people who would gravitate towards them), but it does succeed in subtly presenting Alma’s rootlessness. Anderson steadily positions Krieps’ character as the outsider she is desperately trying not to be — a reporter’s statement about funding Jews in the war (which arguably dictates Alma’s actions during the aforementioned wedding scene); Reynolds’ fleeting insistence that Alma is some kind of spy; a thinly-veiled antisemitic diatribe by Henriette Harding towards Alma. The filmmaker’s deftness comes in only utilizing these points when absolutely necessary; they allow Alma to remain intriguing and enigmatic, and Anderson does not fall into the trap of providing a solution along with his explanation. These moments also provide a brittle bone of subversion nestled amongst the opulent post-war luxury that has so clearly caught the director’s eye. 

In one crucial scene, a turning point within Phantom Thread, Alma negotiates with Cyril to have the house to herself for one evening so she can provide a treat for Reynolds. Manville’s character is insistent, and correctly so, that such a surprise would upend her brother, and that Alma should look for some other way to surprise him. While Cyril’s disdain is apparent, her advice is not unhelpful. Still, Alma insists that “I have to know him in my own way.” This is perhaps the key line of Phantom Thread. The meal that Alma cooks is disastrous, and she changes her approach after a volatile and quite funny exchange with Reynolds. Up until this point, Krieps’ character has been trying to act in accordance with what she wants, perhaps in the hope that her sincerity and good intent would be enough to overcome (or control) Reynolds’ petulance, arrogance, obstinacy and inability to deviate from his behavior patterns.  

Once Alma learns that this is not possible, she becomes much more overt in her attempts to claim what she wants. While foraging for mushrooms near Reynolds’ country house, Alma finds a poison mushroom and brews it in her lover’s tea. The ensuing sequence, which in many ways acts as the centerpiece of Phantom Thread, sees Reynolds in a state of feverish reverie, hallucinating images of his dead mother and telling the local doctor to fuck off. All the while, Alma attends to him dutifully and carefully; due to Reynolds’ complete surrender, she is finally able to be loved unconditionally, and love him in turn. It is only when the designer sequesters all control that Alma is able to love him free of the trappings of his job, free from Cyril and free from their own volatile natures. When Reynolds awakens from his illness, he asks Alma to marry him. She pauses, uncertain about the moment and in disbelief that her plan actually worked, and then says yes. 

Though this sequence is only referred to in passing later on in Phantom Thread, the final moments show Anderson pulling off the cinematic coup to which he’s been laying the groundwork for all along. Alma, having delicately prepared a mushroom omelette from that same poisonous fungi which had made Reynolds so ill before, presents it to her husband. She pours him some water in a way that recalls the very first scene in which they meet; delicately, and from a great height. As Reynolds inspects the omelette — first smelling it, holding it up to the light and then keeping the first forkful in his mouth — it seems that he’ll make one of his wild accusations (this time founded). Instead, the designer swallows. “Kiss me, my girl, before I am sick,” he says. Alma and Reynolds have, at last, found the secret to loving each other.

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Phantom Thread Movie Essay - 2017 Paul Thomas Anderson Film

In a film that consistently and expertly draws a fine line between deep personal toxicity and lavish depictions of wealth and comfort, this is the final act of consummation-as-transgression towards which Anderson has been nudging the viewer all along. Reynolds’ predictions have, in a sense, come true; Alma has become a spy in the house of love, poisoning her victim and taking what she wants from while she does so. That Reynolds happily consents to this is merely proof that these two souls are, in some way, fated to be together.

The only question that remains is whether the viewer will roll over and cede to fate or counter fate’s turn.


Phantom Thread Movie Essay - 2017 Paul Thomas Anderson Film

Phantom Thread’s final scene provides the act of transgression which completes the film, and it is transgression in a strictly Batailleian sense; for French philosopher Georges Bataille, the act of transgression was something that could only come with a deep awareness of the taboo. As he puts it: “Organised transgression together with the taboo make social life what it is.” Writing specifically of war, Bataille gives the example that animals, seen as completely distinct from man and given to indulging their base urges, do not go to war with one another: “War is organised violence. The transgression of the taboo is not animal violence. It is violence still, used by a creature capable of reason.” Transgression does not denote the giving way of all reason and boundaries; “often the transgression of a taboo is no less subject to rules than the taboo itself.” Instead, it represents a line in the sand beyond which the violation of taboos can be sanctioned, in accordance with the rules, we have delineated amongst ourselves. Its endpoint, Bataille theorizes, is death; “Death contravenes the taboo against the violence which is supposedly its cause.”

The relationship Anderson depicts between Alma and Reynolds is a never-ending conflict, one in which the upper hand is constantly sought, gained, lost, rued. The ground being fought over is the other’s attention, and the weapons are words, actions and intents. A scene in Phantom Thread’s final act, for example, signals the point at which Reynolds can be said to have lost the war. Shortly after their honeymoon on New Years Eve, Alma decides to go dancing on her own, flouting Reynolds’ curmudgeonly insistence on staying in. Her intent and actions, in this case, are simple; she wants to go dancing, and does so. Reynolds is disturbed, and eventually seeks Alma out, watching from a balcony as he sees her dancing with another man. 

In one of Reynolds’ only displays of fraught physicality in Phantom Thread (outside scenes of sickness), he runs down and ducks and weaves amongst the raucous crowd, his control surrendered and his vulnerability finally made public. Reynolds sees Alma standing, forlorn, at the back of the room, and after a wordless moment between them, he grabs her hand and drags her offscreen. It looks like, once more, Reynolds has insisted on getting his way; however, a final prologue (which may or may not be Alma’s fantasy) shows the couple slow dancing together, surrounded by balloons and confetti. All of this represents the “climax,” as it’s revealed that Alma has taken to her (consensual) routing of poisoning Reynolds. At the height of the war, both characters have gone beyond the “taboo” of their relationship. And in doing so, they have kept themselves content within it. 

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Phantom Thread Movie Essay - 2017 Paul Thomas Anderson Film

The poisoning, as a psychological mechanism, also conforms to Bataille’s writing on individuality within eroticism. Using the example of the orgy, Bataille writes that it is “necessarily disappointing.” True eroticism, Bataille seems to suggest, is the union of two individuals who are the object of the other’s desire; in an orgy, conversely, “each participant denies the individuality of others.” While providing a further example of Bataille’s assertion that the rules of transgression are as tightly bound as those of society in general (and, indeed, joined at the hip), it also shows that the true act of transgression comes from intensification, as opposed to disintegration. Alma’s poisoning of Reynolds in Phantom Thread is a point of no return, but it is also a specific act of love that, with another couple, would simply be attempted mariticide. Bataille claims that “the final aim of eroticism is fusion, all barriers gone, but its first stirrings are characterized by the presence of a desirable object.” Reynolds and Alma do fuse, and their fusion remains colored (but not tainted) by their endlessly undulating power differential; though the act of making the other sick is not strictly an act of eroticism, it is a desire-making act, and this desire comes from the force and absolute removal of control on Reynolds’ part. In other words, he consents to the removal of his consent, with the love between them manifesting not in the act itself, but in the knowledge that their dual surrendering to the act brings them closer together. Alma’s enforced ability to look after Reynolds is the gap in which their love for each other can finally shine through unencumbered. It is no wonder that she claims to want him “flat on his back.”

There is a scene in The Duke of Burgundy which mirrors and inverts this dynamic. In Peter Strickland’s 2014 film, an older woman named Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) acts as a dominatrix for a younger woman, Evelyn (Charia D’Anna). Like Alma and Reynolds in Phantom Thread, their day-to-day life unfolds as a series of closely observed performances, within which acts of submission are administered ritually. Cynthia kisses Evelyn’s feet, cleans her boots and consumes her urine. Strickland shoots these scenes with the languorous eye of the wandering fetishist; the sound of brush on leather and stocking meeting shoe are meticulously observed, and he lingers, softly, on gazes both desirous and otherwise. The filmmaker also understands that the fetish arises from feelings within the individual (not the other way around); psychological and perceptual acuity are the equal of the other, as they rightly should be. Strickland’s screenplay also centers the fact that Cynthia and Evelin are lepidopterists, and much is made of the central metaphor of a unique and beautiful creature of motion being neutered and stuck with pins, rendered an object of study. 

In a sense, The Duke of Burgundy takes place at the point where Phantom Thread ends; as the film progresses, it’s revealed that Evelyn is the driving force behind the relationship, and the acts of domination administered by Cynthia are written on notes by Evelyn the day before. The BDSM dynamic is therefore inverted. And while anyone with even a passing interest in the scene or practice will know that true submission is an open dialogue and safe space, The Duke of Burgundy makes poetry out of this “subversion” of the viewer’s expectations of the power dynamics as established in the first 10 minutes. 

The Duke of Burgundy’s narrative comes to a head when, on Evelyn’s birthday, Cynthia refuses to dominate her role play partner in their established way. Evelyn is consigned to the floor, as she often is, and Cynthia’s foot is on her head, but instead of the dainty, eye-catching stiletto and just-revealing-enough skirt, she wears a comfy slipper and pajamas. This is distressing for Evelyn; the fetishistic act is as much about the costume as it is about the act. Within the context of their fraught relationship, this scene (although softer in action than what appears before) is an act of psychological cruelty much more impactful than any whip, slap or boot. 

Unlike Phantom Thread, The Duke of Burgundy ends with a return, not a transgression; having aired grievances with one another, including admissions of jealousy and betrayal, the pair are last seen observing the same rituals with which the film began. Despite the potentially shocking nature of the actions between Evelyn and Cynthia, they have returned to their “safe” space within the mutually established behaviors that the pair play out with one another. It is not a “happy” ending and the threat of future recriminations hangs large over the central pair, but it contrasts nicely with Phantom Thread. Alma and Reynolds attain a level of actualization within their relationship through the acts performed at the end, and they do so by going “beyond” what they previously thought possible. On the other hand, Evelyn and Cynthia’s actions represent a site to “return to,” a mode of being that is the default. As Strickland articulates neatly, the true act of transgression within their relationship is to have a nice evening together over a home-cooked meal. Neither Phantom Thread or The Duke of Burgundy are moralizing films and neither portrays the characters’ respective behaviors as somehow errant or wrong, but it is telling that Alma’s “break” with the established norm represents a happy ending and Cynthia and Evelyn’s endlessly looping ritual is both ambiguous and ominous. 

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Phantom Thread Movie Essay - The Duke of Burgundy

Ultimately, Phantom Thread is a consumptive film. It is a movie about consumption, with many scenes revolving around the intake of food and food’s place within rituals. More than this, Phantom Thread is a film that invites the viewer to consume it. Anderson’s skill as a visual filmmaker is in his ability to create worlds that are rich and full of depth and are articulated with striking compositions that usually center around faces and the movement of bodies in tandem with gently rotating cameras, but which nevertheless draws the viewer in. While this is a slightly reductive statement given the current vogue of worldbuilding in popular cinema, Anderson’s films are a world the viewer can inhabit. Whether it’s the sturm and drang of Magnolia, the idling melancholy of Inherent Vice or the expressionist neuroticism of Punch-Drunk Love, each film lays out an emotional core within the script, which is then articulated through mise-en-scène that seduces the viewer aesthetically.

In keeping with this directorial modus operandi, Phantom Thread is a queasily seductive film. And while the queasiness arises from the subject matter, the seduction comes from the way the subject is presented. It is hard not to be drawn into Reynolds’ rituals, not to want to take the proffered pastry, not to, as Alma does, make yourself part of the world. Every aspect of Phantom Thread feels lived in, from the high-contrast photography to the lingering and textural close-ups. Anderson is known for drawing mannered performances out of actors, and every clipped syllable uttered by Day-Lewis, and every look of curiosity-giving-way-to-determination provided by Krieps, seems to be a puzzle for the audience to unwrap, something more to chew on.

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Phantom Thread Movie Essay - 2017 Paul Thomas Anderson Film

For all that Phantom Thread is and does, hunger provides the through-line. Alma describes Reynolds as a “hungry boy,” his startlingly large breakfast is the catalyst of contact between them and the entire meaning of the film comes to rest on a shot of Reynolds coyly chewing an omelette. Phantom Thread makes a hungry boy of the viewer, too, seducing initially through the rich and detailed set design and then later with the knotty romantic interplay; audiences can ingratiate themselves into Anderson’s world, full of glistening glissandos that pepper Jonny Greenwood’s typically magisterial score. The direction might be downwards, but the beauty makes it all the more worthwhile. 

Phantom Thread is for anyone who has ever been hungry, for anyone who has ever been in love. Most of all, it’s for those people who know that love and hunger are, at their most acutely expressed, one and the same.

Declan Cochran (@theedeklan) is a 25-year-old writer living in Worthing. He has written for Horrified, Film International, WhatCulture, Sony and his own website The Appreciation Index. When not working, Declan can be found scouring the backwoods of the internet for forgotten artefacts that shine a light on human existence (or are mildly entertaining).