In 1950s London, spoiled fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) lives a privileged, glamorous life. Coddled by his sister, who ends his love affairs for him, organises his holidays, and takes charge of the less interesting business details of the House of Woodcock, Reynolds is accustomed to an easy life. When Reynolds encounters Alma (Vicky Krieps) in a restaurant and asks her to dinner, their date ends at his home where he measures her for a dress. Thus begins their relationship with him as creator and her as subservient muse, irrelevant save for her inspiration to him.
Alma loves Reynolds and is willing to do anything to be with him. In her own narration, she states that she has given him “every piece” of herself. Her transformation into a mannequin (she models his designs, accompanied by hand-held numbered cards so that potential buyers know the dress, but not her), turns her into an object, which is what Reynolds, initially, wants. He transforms her into whatever suits him, while reprimanding her individuality (when she expresses distaste for a fabric, her subjective opinions are condemned as wrong). Alma is to be a series of inches, as inhuman as the dress forms on which Reynolds places his garments. The film is a comparatively sexless Story of O (Pauline Réage), in which the protagonist gladly descends into a complete sexual objectification for her lover, who loves her more for becoming an object for him.
Phantom Thread is a film proudly tied to its influences. The names Woodcock and Alma, a nod to Alfred Hitchcock and his wife and collaborator Alma Reville, set the stage for a deep connection with Hitchcock’s oeuvre. We see similarities to his 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which deals with the young wife of an older, wealthy man. Separated by class and social standing as much as by the imposing housemaid and her husband’s self-absorbed lack of care, the basic plot could be applied to Alma’s story. Added in is a heavy mix of Vertigo, where, again, an older man becomes obsessed with a woman (younger, working class) and attempts to transform her into his physical ideal. Unlike these characters who struggle within the confines of their relationships to men, Alma cannot adjust to the lifestyle of submission that is required of her once she moves into the Woodcock homes, and she begins pushing back, eventually poisoning Reynolds with mushrooms, upending his steely control and rendering him dependent on her care.
Rebecca and other influential melodramas, including Hitchcock’s Suspicion or David Lean’s The Passionate Friends, focus on the protagonist (her interiority particularly in the face of an obscure, oppressive husband); films like Vertigo, as well as other mystery or thriller texts such as du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel focus on the interrogation of the woman, giving a space in which to critique the man’s paranoia and control. Similarly, The Story of O shows us the interiority of O. As she is brutalised in a series of sexual rituals that her lover initiates for her, we read about her feelings (her fear, her desire, her excitement, her love, her commitment, and how her submissiveness becomes a part of her). These characters go beyond the surface of a woman attached to a man.
But Phantom Thread, drawing so strongly upon these influences, while equally intent on dissecting the trope of the empty muse and important artist, presents Alma as a fairly shallow character. We know that she loves Reynolds because she states, explicitly, “I love you,” and we can infer her desire for his wealthy, luxurious lifestyle, where he clothes her in elegant original designs and feeds her at the finest restaurants – it’s made clear that this is all a far cry from the busy inn in which she worked when first introduced in the film. But the class difference is swept over, never articulated fully or taken beyond the initial scene of Alma’s waitressing job, her potentially poor table manners, and so her emotions revolve, without exception, around Reynolds. We witness his life, his creative pursuits, culinary passions, family, and professional relationships, and are given a window into his knotted psychology – but Alma is solitary, closed, only ever depicted in the terms of her relationship to him. Her love is a performance, without desire, outside of her situation. She rejects his obvious feelings in order to have the life she wants (when Alma plans a surprise dinner for Reynolds, she knows he will be displeased; when he shows up angry, she responds with a smile and romantic phrases as if oblivious to his reaction) and this adds to the absurdity of their toxic relationship. Although Alma narrates the film, this lack of complex emotions makes her peripheral: Phantom Thread is decisively his story.
After being poisoned for the first time, Reynolds comes to depend on Alma, and so proposes to her. He later becomes dissatisfied with their marriage and her uncontrollable nature – Alma never accepts the submissive role that she’s meant to take in Reynolds’s life. When she poisons him for the second time, we see their desires more clearly. Alma states that she wants Reynolds hurt and dependent, so that he will slow down and need her more desperately, and he concedes that he wants to be dependent and cared for as he eats her poisoned omelette deliberately. Yet although both characters express their desires, this moment only gives depth to Reynolds by retroactively shedding light on his character and behaviours.
Alma is a singular figure who wants Reynolds from start to finish and this doesn’t change. Reynolds, instead, moves from his dominant, controlling persona, to his true desires, which Anderson has skilfully woven into the plot. References to Reynolds’s devotion to his late mother, and obsession with the wedding dress that he sewed for her, as well as the comfort he takes in his sister’s care of him, provide hints at a hidden need, despite his otherwise “tough” (his word) exterior, and perfectionist nature. Reynolds is given depth. We see his complete, unintellectual submission to his feelings, and his harshly controlling creative drive, and then later, how both his personal life and history suggest hidden passions. Alma does not have this complexity.
Phantom Thread draws on films and texts with nuanced, gendered discussions and depictions, but ends up with a sense of lack. Anderson’s film is hungry for the elements it eschews – the art that he draws upon was sincere. When the second Mrs de Winter questions her husband and home in Rebecca, her fear and insecurity, as well as her love and longing, were real, deeply, sensitively understood. When Scotty in Vertigo becomes fixated on Judy, his grief, obsession, control, and desire are terrifying, but honest. Phantom Thread is a funny film, but when compared to its predecessors, it’s an unsatisfactory psychodrama presented with a smirk. Anderson works through, not with, the classic films he references. By the end, the whole thing is almost Brechtian – the absurdity of Reynolds’ frenzies and Alma’s retaliations lend themselves to a heightened and feverish film which undoes the central romance. This romance, unhealthy from the start, is given a knowing edge through Anderson’s ridicule of it – but the critique is never as comprehensive, nor as scathing, as what he builds on.
Anderson could never be accused of not understanding the texts he engages with, but it’s insulting that he presents himself as above the melodrama, that he makes fun of it so extensively. Melodrama takes its subjects – its women – seriously; Anderson does not. Moulding his inspiration in the same way that Reynolds shapes women into ideal figures, Anderson gives us a Gothic woman’s picture without the female perspective, an erotic novel without the sex, a melodrama without the sincerity.