Aside from a very favorable early critical reception, not much is well-known about “Phantom Thread” – which I saw on the last day of 2017 – except that it will be Daniel Day-Lewis’ last film, or so the actor has declared. Actually, it is an achievement in its own right. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted an absorbing, suspenseful drama that functions equally well as his personal meditation on art.
While Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” is the intended model for the film, it is even more clearly an homage to Hitchcock in general. There are also sneak references to “Vertigo” (immediately obvious), “Notorious”, “Psycho”, “TheMan Who Knew Too Much” and, I suspect, others that I’ll catch on a second viewing.
It is the late 1950’s in London. We are introduced to Reynolds Woodcock, played by Lewis, one of the supreme fashion designers in England. With his sister, Cyril, played by Lesley Manville, he has built a prominent dressmaking business based on his international reputation as a tastemaker. His style emphasizes expensive materials, classical elegance and, above all, feminine modesty. The business is located in an elegant townhouse which also serves as personal residence for his sister and himself.
Unmarried, and still in his mid-50’s, he has gone through a succession of girlfriends whom he uses as models and personal assistants. They move in for a time, but he soon loses interest and finds a replacement. Cyril is well aware of the routine, and, in an early scene at the breakfast table, she even tells him she “thinks it is time” for the current occupant to leave. Actually, he’s way ahead of Cyril, and shows his readiness by a whirlwind courtship of Alma, played by Vicky Krieps, a charming, if only average looking waitress at a country hotel.
These scenes are meant to evoke Laurence Olivier’s courtship of Joan Fontaine in the Hitchcock film, but with a major difference. “Rebecca” relied on an idealized love based on a meeting of equals, a love for which mutual trust was assumed, but which was burdened, in Olivier’s case, by a terrible secret from his past. But here there is no meeting of equals. Woodcock is a dazzling international success, extremely handsome and has women lining up for his attention. Alma is almost paralyzed by her low status and plain looks.
In fact his pursuit of her does have disturbing overtones. We sense that Woodcock is playing out psychological impulses over which he has little control, and may not even be aware of. We suspect that this is also why he tells Alma about the “phantom thread”, a hidden message he sews into every dress. If this is a secret, why does he reveal it to a woman he barely knows?
So now we come to another major Hitchcock influence, namely the Freudian foundation for the characters. Anderson uses it to explain Woodcock’s obsessive pursuit of success in an early scene. He tells Alma about the dress he made for his own mother, and of his sense of loss after her death. He tells her that his mother remains as an actual presence within him, and provides him with “comfort” every day.
While Alma is mostly passive and compliant in these early scenes, we sense that something is being aroused within her, something, in fact, that will establish the basic dramatic conflict for the story. Krieps’ performance is especially subtle here. We sense that Alma has an ego of equal strength with Woodcock’s. She will find a way to dominate him and, in her own words, “be able to love him on my own terms”.
But not right away. His domination is total at first, with an indifference to her feelings bordering on cruelty. Perish the thought of “interrupting” his concentration when he applies the needle and thread to the mannequin. But, in a climactic scene, Alma emboldens him to defy a wealthy patron when the woman “dishonors” his art. Barging into her bedroom, she pounces on the drunken, unconscious woman and roughly strips her of the dress, as if reclaiming a prize of her own. Afterwards, Woodcock kisses Alma passionately, but also with a hint of worship.
Encouraged by her success, Alma continues to defy Cyril’s domination, and Woodcock’s own defenses start to crumble. Finally, after Alma resorts to a melodramatic device that would have made the master chuckle with delight, Woodcock gives in entirely. Their wedding ceremony is simple and brief; in other words, nothing like the extravagant affairs that made him rich.
Up to now, there is nothing particularly controversial about the story. It is only when Woodcock rebels, and tries to throw off the restraints of domesticity that Alma is forced to take drastic action. She employs the same methods that brought her victory the first time, but at greater risk.
This brings the story to what is, at least for me, a satisfying conclusion, but I can anticipate audience pushback. That final scene at the breakfast table is a make-or-break challenge to credibility, and is sure to create lively discussion. But I think it works spectacularly well. Anderson has created a world of pure artifice that, somehow, we accept alongside our own. Through perfect casting, and brilliant performances, the decisions made by three unquestionably odd people are made to seem, well, human.
While many Hitchcock films are recalled, I think “Rebecca” remains the standout precursor, if only because of Manville’s performance as Cyril. Her bearing, expression and delivery are clearly meant to evoke Judith Anderson’s performance as Mrs. Danvers, mistress of Manderley; it is as close to pure imitation as you can get.
As a true devotee of Hitchcock, Anderson seems to be having fun with the many references to his films, and those of us who’ve seen those films many times can share in the fun. Hitchcock himself fits into the image of the artist as the amused bystander, with secret jokes in his films. Like “phantom threads”. The most famous are his quick surprise cameos; enough for a chuckle before returning to the story. And, of course, he also married a woman named Alma.
Yet there is a darker side to Hitchcock’s art, and Woodcock strongly embodies it. His obsession with fashion as an art form doesn’t seem to give him much pleasure. His townhouse is his domain, but also his prison. He seems to choke if forced to breathe air from the outside world. His eventual surrender to Alma’s demands – to submit to her domestic dominance – seems to lift a burden from his shoulders. Does Anderson suggest that all artists are similarly miserable? Just waiting to be rescued from their uncontrollable compulsions?
Hitchcock doesn’t seem to fit that image. Unlike Woodcock, he never avoided normal married life. His lifelong devotion to a dull British-style domesticity is part of his legend. His international success remains the model for the careers of countless independent filmmakers. But did that success make him a happy man? Was a dull family life fulfilling for this great artist? It is revealing that his films express a view of the world that is unsettling, always threatening. Domestic tranquility? You should remember that he cast his own daughter in a role where a homicidal maniac puts his hands around her throat and tries to strangle her.