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Revisiting: Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps is in its essence a romantic love story that places a question mark over the boundaries of loving action and serves as a totem to the irregular forms and patterns that two people will partake in, in order to make a relationship work.

It is questionable as to whether Alma (Krieps) poisons Reynolds (Day-Lewis) in order to keep him or to save him from himself - as so often with Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent films, it is likely to be both and suggestions of true motive exist only in the nuance. As the story progresses, there is no doubt their love is real and Alma’s actions a sincere effort to ‘slow him down’ - essentially pressing the reset button on Reynolds and in his vulnerable state, finding a way back to him. Much of the film builds to this moment, surrounded by the opulence and beauty of the house and dresses that adorn the screen - when it arrives it is handled with surrealism and appropriate suspense. A powerful moment, during Reynolds’ first poisoning, is when he is visited by his mother who is wearing the wedding dress he and his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), made for her. It’s a hallucination and visitation that feels eery in its plausibility - there is the sense that for Reynolds it really happened.

Despite these unusual foibles, Reynolds and Alma seem right for each other and the story remains sympathetic to their cause. Through all the talk of hauntings and curses, it seems Alma is the only one who can cure Reynolds. There is a redemptive theme to the tale and one of personal transformation in which only the most extreme intervention can change what appears to be immovable in Reynolds. For a film containing these themes, it is surprisingly funny - much of the humour coming from Reynolds who is every bit as particular and insufferable as was suggested in the build up to the film’s release. Surprisingly, he has enough charisma and redemptive qualities so that a fondness of him isn’t difficult to feel and it is a joy to see how he will behave and respond in given situations - every breakfast scene is a highlight.

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Everybody in the film is excellent but it is not an exaggeration to say that Day-Lewis is flawless in what has been billed as his final role, aged 60. When he is on screen it’s as if a metamorphosis takes place - the individual disappears completely with a new person, the character, inhabiting his space. It’s an esoteric thing that is hard to define that Paul Thomas Anderson also referenced in an anecdote from a cameraman who said whilst on set, ‘I don’t know how to describe it, but I just watched a man put on his socks’.

These people, whose lives we see into, is what makes Phantom Thread unique. Alma, Reynolds and his sister Cyril are all presented with affection and depth, as rounded, sincere but flawed people rather than cogs explicitly serving a plot device. Reynolds never becomes the psychopathic Master, Cyril doesn’t remain the unfeeling sister and Alma doesn’t transform into a sinister killer - although she comes close. The blur of traditional plot devices and the atypical pacing of the film has an alluring nature. There is an openness that provides a close insight into the characters who are given a lot of time, which can either manifest itself to the viewer as very little happening or instead that anything that could happen. The reality is that there are multiple relationships, sequences and stories in play that are exhibited with subtlety and care. Most poignantly Reynolds and his mother, who through her absence exists as a ‘phantom’ that finds a vessel through Alma and hangs over the House of Woodcock. During the poisoning, Alma and Reynold’s relationship is not romantic which offers him the chance, in his vulnerability and helplessness, to regress back to that child that lives inside him who longs to be enveloped by the love of the mother he lost and still pines for. AG