Phantom Thread


The first glimpse the audience gets of Reynolds Woodcock in “Phantom Thread” is not as we will come to know him, armored in ruthless grace, but as a fragile man. On a stool, wearing a white shirt, he slides red socks up his thin legs the way that a child might. We see Woodcock’s shoulders twitch a little, and the little angry jerks of the fabric. We watch as he combs his hair, and approaches the mirror and snips the hairs from his nostrils. He snips, pauses, considers, snips again.

It’s an almost vulgar display of force and detail, and one comes to understand that this is a rare intrusion into the fretful energy that stirs beneath Woodcock’s polished, public persona. This is not the effortless cool of an aesthete but the white-knuckled effort of someone trying desperately to hold onto his sense of self. “Phantom Thread” exposes Woodcock’s personal style as not merely a disguise but an attempted curative for his febrile self.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film tells the story of Woodcock, a postwar English designer (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), and his courtship of a young woman named Alma (played by Vicky Krieps, in a star-making role), as their relationship evolves into one of vivid obsession, stunning reversals, and a scintillating collision of wills. “Phantom Thread” has already collected a chest of awards, and it’s nominated for six Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Score, and, most important, Best Costume Design. At its finest moments, “Phantom Thread” shows the power that costumes impart to the depth and feeling of a story.

There is a monastic air in the House of Woodcock, and not merely because of its astringent immaculacy. In the workroom, the seamstresses don their white chore coats and set about the task of fabricating Woodcock’s designs. They walk on hard, black heels from table to table, taking measurements, aligning muslin, cutting fabric.

They work with the quiet piety of nuns in a religious order. Woodcock drifts among them in his own chore coat, hands behind his back, peering down his nose and through his glasses. Everyone is adorned in the same severe lines, the same starched, brilliant white. Utility and simplicity are a single unit.
Then Woodcock flees the city for his country home. Here, he turns into a bit of a rustic in dark, earthy knits. Woodcock stops for breakfast, and Alma literally stumbles into the frame, drawing his attention with a clatter. He’s wearing a casual sport coat in plaid and a dark, heavy shirt left unbuttoned at the neck with a green tartan ascot. It’s a sharp break from the dark-gray suit and the lavender bow tie he wore in a preceding dinner scene in the city. Alma, like the other waitresses, is wearing a red dress under a white apron, and this, too, is a departure from the city; women aren’t wreathed in black and sombre tones. There is a hint of friction as they test each other: Woodcock delivers a comically long list of food and then snatches the order slip; Alma delivers the order in full with a wry smile and says, “For the hungry boy.”

Later, they go to dinner and return to Woodcock’s country home, where their flirtation deepens. By the fire, Woodcock tells Alma in cryptic fragments about his family, his mother, his sister, his past. We have come to expect this from him—the chiselled, aphoristic anecdote, speech that is both direct and elliptical. (In an earlier scene, Woodcock murmurs about unsettled feelings and ghostly impressions to his sister Cyril.) Silhouetted by the fire, Woodcock wears his charcoal double-breasted suit with a whimsical but very grave bow tie in dark green tartan. Alma asks Woodcock why he is not married and Woodcock explains that marriage would only make him deceitful. Alma then says, “You sound so sure of things.” Woodcock visibly tenses. “I’m sure of that,” he says.

One of the great thrills of “Phantom Thread” is the way that it lingers on the details of style. The quirks of a wardrobe become more, not less, remarkable under this sustained scrutiny. Fashion is all about control—of the viewer’s eye, of a client’s body, of oneself— so good style becomes the highest form of self-mastery, the ability to control what of oneself the world is allowed to access. Woodcock’s great hubris has everything to do with controlling the bodies of the women he dresses—they can barely breathe, can barely move, they are there to be propped and looked at—but it also has to do with wanting to control how the world reaches him.

Early in their courtship, Woodcock and Alma walk beside the sea ensconced behind thick wool cowls and outercoats. There is an illusion of comfort, warmth, gentleness. But one suspects that beneath lies the true hitch and scrape of Woodcock and Alma’s relationship. Later in the film, the two begin to chafe against each other. Alma, now Woodcock’s muse, exerts her opinions about Woodcock’s designs. He dismisses her opinions, and we come to understand that his muses are meant to be silent. Alma is noisy during breakfast, and Woodcock storms from the table, his routine disrupted. They go on this way, Alma trying to recapture some of their earlier intimacy, and Woodcock growing more and more annoyed by her very presence. (Warning: spoilers follow.) In a bid for power, Alma secretly poisons him with mushrooms, and this leads to one of the film’s most gorgeous moments: Woodcock, after struggling with the violent illness brought upon him, wears a robe as he kneels on a settee next to Alma. They make up, and he proposes.
A simple thing, a robe, and yet it captures so much of what it feels like to have passed so close to disaster; while a robe can mean leisure, it can also signal a lack of will or strength or desire to dress oneself. A robe can feel like submission. Gone are the drape and structure of Woodcock’s daywear, and all that’s left is the frailty.

The Oscars are tomorrow night and Get Out is the most talked about and divisive film to come around in a long time. Is it a comedy, is a horror movie, is it a documentary? While I’m rooting for Jordan Peele’s directorial debut and feel it should win for Original Screenplay, I think there’s a better film that should not only win Best Picture but also Best Director and Original Score.

That film, of course, is Phantom Thread because it’s mad beautiful and is easily my favorite movie of the year. In fact, I almost spent $80 to watch it again with a live orchestra playing the score at BAM in Brooklyn last weekend, but nobody wanted to go with me, so I was relegated to watching my screener copy for what was probably like the fifth time.

Phantom Thread is about letting yourself be vulnerable enough to be loved. It follows Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), Britain’s most sought after fashion designer who has little time or patience for meaningful relationships. That’s until Alma (Vicky Krieps) comes along to challenge Woodcock’s way of life. She’s not intimidated by his social stature or his success, and she’s not satisfied with just being his muse. The two struggle in an enchanting dance of love, sacrifice, and solidarity. This is a love story that doesn’t leave you wondering what a fish man’s penis might look like. Hopefully, this fact swayed this year’s Academy voters Phantom’s way.Beyond the story, one of my favorite things about the film is the music. It bugged me out when I Googled to see who produced the score, and to my surprise, it was my guy Jonny Greenwood from one of my favorite bands, Radiohead.

My skater friends who I used to sell hella weed to in college put me on to them back in the day. Hail to the Thief had just come out and that shit blew my mind. Greenwood also scored There Will Be Blood (another favorite of mine), and he did his thing once again in Phantom Thread. The opening scene with Alma shows her sitting by a fire as she tells a writer about Woodcock making her dreams come true and how she gave every piece of herself to him in return. All the while, Greenwood’s classical piano skills are going hammer. I was immediately locked in.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first caught wind of this movie. I’m a big fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, yet I wasn’t too hype on watching another movie centered around hella white people. Still, I was up early on a Saturday for no reason and fired the screener up and was fixated by the music and cinematography alone. But I stayed for Vicky Krieps, who stole my guy Danny D’s thunder in what is supposedly his last movie ever.

Vicky went toe-to-toe with the god so effortlessly; I get pissed whenever I remember that she didn’t get nominated for an Oscar for her performance. You’d figured those old white men at the Academy would be all over a movie like this. They’ll probably give Best Picture to the mid as fuck Three Billboards. Them cats didn’t even bother to watch Get Out, so why would they give a relatively unknown foreign actress a Leading Actress nomination? Alma was the perfect woman for a dude like Woodcock; a true ride or die.

There’s one scene where Alma takes the dress off a drunk, rich lady because her behavior was giving the Woodcock fashion house a bad name. To me, this is equivalent to a shorty that hides drugs when the cops pull you over, like “huh, ma, boof that.” These are the women you give the world to. And she diabolically poisoned Woodcock to make him weak enough so that she could have him all to herself because he’s a meticulous workaholic with a strong case of OCD. I’m talking the type of OCD that makes your significant other buttering toast in the morning a cause for concern. He dug that move so much, he asked for her hand in marriage.

The push and pull between Alma and Woodcock, Greenwood’s score, and P.T.A.’s cinematography make Phantom Thread more than just another mundane period piece centered around European elites. I went in thinking I was going to hate this movie, and was left with wanting to find true love like my guy Woodcock.

I hit the second joint I was smoking when the credits went up and asked myself: “Damn, where’s my Alma at?”CLEVELAND, Ohio — The 90th Academy Awards take place Sunday, March 4. This year’s contenders for top honors include movies about high-society fashion, a watery fairy tale, a mom seeking justice, a war movie, a horror movie, a newspaper movie and movie about a quirky girl called Lady Bird. Which movie will earn the Oscar? Read on for our Plain Dealer critic’s picks, then tune in Sunday at 8 p.m. on ABC.