Film Review: “Phantom Thread” (2017) and the Dark Side of Desire

Some spoilers for the film follow.

Apparently, 2017 was in some ways the year of desire, or at least that is the impression I get having seen several of the contenders for Best Picture this year. Whether it’s the yearning to be free of small town life and smothering mothers in Lady Bird, the sweet summer of first love in Call Me By Your Name, or the powerful lust for a life outside of the confines of Cold War conformity in The Shape of Water, desire is everywhere.

And it’s darker side is to be found in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread.

Phantom Thread is one of those films that’s deeply unsettling upon an initial viewing but slowly seeps into your consciousness as you think more about its impact on you. Perhaps it’s the film’s gorgeous attention to detail–both visual and auditory–or perhaps it’s the crisp performances from its leads. Whatever it is, this film burrows deep into your brain as the days go by.

Though it’s hard to summarize a film like this, here goes. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a renowned designer of haute couture, his gowns desired and sought after by society’s finest. He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), in a relationship fraught with quasi-incestuous ambiguity, and his daily life is governed by a very precise set of rituals which he rigorously enforces upon all who lives in his household. All of this is disrupted when he meets a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who slowly but irrevocably disrupts his daily routines as they both find themselves caught in the deadly tide of desire.

This desire seethes in every exchange, every frame, and every sartorial flourish, emerging at key moments to disturb our complacency as viewers. In this film, desire is not just as means by which people seek out a connection to one another, but also the way in which they are able to grasp something about themselves that evades their conscious understanding. Though the film establishes quite early on that Reynolds has a habit of dispensing with the young women who take his fancy, something about Alma–possibly her rakishness, her tendency to resist his control–seems to call to him in a way that keeps him from discarding her.

Desire also writhes beneath the surface of Day-Lewis’s face. Day-Lewis has earned himself a justified reputation for his ability to fully inhabit the characters that he plays, and he brings that to bear on his portrayal of Woodcock. Here, he portrays a man whose desire for control manifests itself in every aspect of his personality, from the rigour with which he approaches the design of his dresses to the absolute silence that he commands. This is a man who takes great care to sculpt his surroundings–including, it should be noted, his sister–into the form that he desires, and any disruption to that order causes an immediate outburst of rage.

And as much as the film’s visual palette is truly stunning, what stood out to me the most was its use of sound: the crisp delivery of the dialogue; the sumptuous rustle of cloth; the infamous scraping of the toast; the soft, delicate skritching of pen on paper. The sounds leap out of the screen, as unsettling as they are pleasurable, a reminder of the sheer physicality of this world. They grate against us just as they often grate against Woodcock, stitching us into his experience of his surroundings.

At the same time, sound also encourages us to see things from Alma’s perspective, to cheer for her as she cheerfully uses sound to break apart Woodcock’s meticulously ordered life. It is thus especially significant that Alma relates the film in voiceover, her voice asserting a measure of control into the narrative that forces us to rethink just how much Woodcock has over anything. But then, her entire presence in the film relies upon the power of sound, whether that is her tendency to always want to get the last word in an argument (one source of the film’s biting and rather acidic humour), or her deliberately goading him at the breakfast table by scraping her toast too loudly (and deliberately pouring the tea from a hilariously high angle).

As the film reaches its final third, Woodcock’s entire life, that he has crafted and sculpted with such meticulous and granular attention, has begun to crack. Cyril defies him at the breakfast table–something she has never done before–and one of his foremost customers has taken her work elsewhere. The film makes it clear that Woodcock’s brittle adherence to detail may well see the ruin of everything that he has worked so assiduously to maintain, both in his professional and personal life.

It is only when Alma begins poisoning Woodcock–thus rendering him incapacitated and totally reliant on him–that they begin to settle into their (deeply unsettling) primal rhythm. Each offers the opportunity to oscillate between control and abandon, a fierce frisson that will, Alma hopes, set the stage for their future together. Unlike Cyril, who has enabled Woodcock in his obsessive control, Alma constantly challenges him.

Ultimately, it seems to me, Phantom Thread explores the perilous nature of desire. It’s what drives (some of) us as human beings to seek out others, even as it is also what threatens to destroy us. Both Reynolds and Alma are individuals whose psyches are haunted by yearnings that they rarely openly articulate, in all likelihood because they cannot describe, even to themselves, what those desires actually are. And because the film seems largely agnostic about how we should feel about this obviously pathological relationship, it’s hard not to emerge deeply unsettled from the whole viewing experience (as many of my filmgoers did).

But then, perhaps that’s the film’s point. Much as we might like to pin desire down, channel it, or just plain understand it, part of it always eludes us. No matter how much we try to repress it, desire will always find away to erupt into our lives, disturbing the placid surface of our everyday reality.

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