Phantom Thread is a movie about obsession. Call it love, admiration, compulsion or simply attention to detail, it is the central ingredient in Paul Thomas Anderson’s answer to the vintage Hollywood romance. Following the peculiar relationship between eccentric couturier Reynolds Woodcock and foreign waitress-turned-muse-turned-partner Alma, the postwar London-set film fits right in with the other classic love affairs of the time, save for its distinctly modern look at what is essentially a well-dressed, well-spoken battle of the kinks.
Precisely at its midway point, after living at his house, on his terms, for several weeks, Alma (Vicky Krieps) attempts to cement her status as woman of the house by surprising Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) with an intimate dinner at home. For the self-absorbed dressmaker, the surprise comes as an “ambush” on his meticulously planned life of rituals and formalities. For Alma, it is a disappointing – if not surprising – realization that her life at the House of Woodcock seems totally disposable, which leads to the couple’s first real fight at the dinner table. Though their argument marks the beginning of the leveling-off in their relationship, after which Alma begins to make her presence indispensable and equal, what it best reveals is the heart at the center of their obsessive lives.
Reynolds, whose entire day is thrown off if toast is buttered too loudly at breakfast, maintains his fragile reality by adhering to strict schedules and codes of conduct. While, of course, these traits are what distinguish him as a designer, they manifest themselves in his personal life as cold manipulation tactics. He is a man obsessed with a bygone perfection embodied by his late mother, for whose nursing care he feverishly longs. While he might tersely discuss this longing with his live-in sister, his perfectionism blinds him from living honestly, incapable of achieving the organic happiness his partner desires.
Alma, who speaks with a vaguely French accent and lacks Reynolds’ high society decorum, crashes into his carefully curated life of unchallenged ego and demands to be treated as an equal. Throughout the film, she taunts his mannerisms and controlling nature, believing it to be part of their courtship until her attempt at true intimacy leaves her feeling as if she’s holding onto a hollow obsession. She, too, has been playing this “game,” noticing his little fixations but growing tired of the distance it places between either person and a reality of emotional fulfillment and growth. In demanding equal standing with Reynolds, she discovers an autonomy within her that will later serve her goals and, ultimately, their relationship.
Anderson carefully shoots these characters on distinct visual planes throughout the movie, outlining the way the power in their relationship shifts by placing them above, below or next to each other. This carefully constructed film mirrors its characters by placing a liberal amount of actorly improvisation and dramatic chaos in a painstakingly crafted masterpiece that’s equal parts swooning fairy tale, haunting ghost story and absurdly funny romantic comedy. Watching these two strong-willed The titular Phantom Thread points to many of its themes and motifs but, above all, represents the invisible connection Reynolds and Alma have; ethereal and tenuous, but very, very real.