Phantom Thread (2017) weaves a story of love, revenge, insanity
Phantom Thread is a study on toxic relationships with a proposal on how to live with it — if you’re insane enough.
Three-time Oscar Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis plays the perfectionist fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock. Set in 1950s London, heiresses and royalty come to him for their dresses. To these women, Woodcock is a god who turns them into silken queens in ermine coats.
Woodcock carries an air of silent dukedom and magnetism, a calm flirtatiousness that streams out in choice words. We see this perfectly when he retreats to the countryside and meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), the young, coy, and audacious waitress who serves him breakfast. The first time they talk, you’d think they’d known each other for years. Not that they talk profusely; they don’t, they’re British. In fact, a formal customer-waitress transaction ensues, but you know a life-long deal is already being negotiated. You just know one is tailor made for the other. They know it, too.
So soon Alma finds herself in London, working for Woodcock as assistant and model. But more than that, she is the old man’s muse and sweetheart.
Trouble begins to brew during breakfast when Woodcock demands fuss-free silence over the table. Alma was buttering her toast and tinkling some china and disturbing Woodcock from his dress-sketching reverie. The man stormed out of the room, enraged.
Woodcock then maintains a manipulative and demanding behavior that smothers Alma’s naivety. There’s already a preview to this attitude in the couple’s first after-date date, at Woodcock’s country cottage, when he took Alma’s measurements, with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) noting the numbers. “You have no breasts,” he said, casually. The startled girl apologized, and Woodcock just said, “no, no, you’re perfect” — to the girl’s baffled relief — “My job to give you some. If I choose to.” When Woodcock went out of the room to get a sample dress, Cyril noted that Alma actually has the ideal shape. The scene was weird, but you’re endeared, like Alma, to the thought that for once, what you thought was a weakness is actually a strength.
Too bad, Alma is too insecure to leave Woodcock inspite of his genteel douchery; she craves his attention, his esteem. At one crucial point, he tells her he doesn’t need her.
Then the world goes upside down.
Alma takes her revenge. The story goes to a sickening swerve, making you question your previous feelings towards the couple. Is it right to hurt the person you love, who happens to be a prick in tuxedo? Will you tolerate an endless cycle of abuse, knowing that…you can do something similar and reignite that early-stage romance?
Phantom Thread — one of the Best Picture nominees at the 2018 Oscars — is a beautiful zooming in to contrasts: Woodcock’s posh lifestyle versus Alma’s rustic upbringing; his exact measurements and demands versus her haphazard outlook in life; his condescension versus her tacit rebellion; his superstitions versus her culinary science; his loving and wounding, and hers.
In the end, one may feel sympathy for the two loonies — for the old man who has not grown up and for the young woman who’s ready to mother him…their niche of Freudian f*ckery. But I bet no one wants that kind of relationship — a prequel to hell.