A Lover’s Discourse

Phantom Thread (2017)

Focus Features

I. L’Amour Fou

On their first date, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) sponges the makeup from Alma’s (Vicky Krieps) lips. He wants to see what he’s looking at. This is no ordinary seduction, for though he persuades the young waitress to go back to his country house and to remove her dress, he desires only to remake her. He prompts Alma to jump onto a table so he can slink a muslin sample onto her body. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) arrives, surprised to find this new guest, but somehow also unsurprised, and gamely opens her notebook. She underscores Alma’s name and takes down the young woman’s measurements. When Reynolds informs Alma she has no breasts, she sputters an apology. Reynolds smiles. “I can give you breasts. If I want to.” He is creating a second skin—and what he loves is what he’s created.

Reynolds is a renowned designer, very lately divested of a muse, retreated to the country for inspiration. His appetite is catalyzed by the glimpse of this young woman. In movement Alma is clumsy; in repose, she is a Madonna or a Modigliani. At first, we see her properties only as Reynolds perceives them.

I’m a confirmed bachelor, Reynolds explains. Like someone who’s just completed an Esalen course or a Myers-Briggs survey, Reynolds has himself figured, and from those certainties he has concocted a mode of living. Alma takes in his self-mythology with merry eyes, a youthful disregard. Given the ghostly sheaths of women’s garments at hand, there is the sense of trespassing in Bluebeard’s lair. You fear for Alma; or perhaps you despise her, depending on your expectations for young women.

II. Superstition

As practiced by the House of Woodcock, fashion is the opposite of ready-to-wear: it is not easy, casual or approachable. It is performative, sculptural, and ceremonial. It is time sensitive, in that it seeks to transcend dimensions. In postwar London, fashion returns women from the workforce to nature. They are transformed into flowers, butterflies, or birds, for women are decorative, curated creatures. Woodcock’s silhouette is persuasive and romantic—nipped waist, creamy or caped shoulders, meringues of color, lavish bustles and ties. Women are not set free by the house of Woodcock, they are commemorated.

Woodcock is in part based upon the couturier Charles James, an errant talent who worked in superfluity. He was inspired and inconsistent; moody and impractical at a time when the world had more patience and deeper pockets for a difficult genius. His creations were often photographed by fashion photographer and royal portraitist Cecil Beaton. The most recent season of The Crown shows an existentially-bored Princess Margaret choosing to publish a sexualized picture of herself by Tony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon) over one by Beaton. There’s the sense of rebellion in this choice, because Beaton, like Woodcock, promises a romanticized image. A pedestal is not a place to remain.

Reynolds has absolute, if absolutely subjective, ideas about beauty. His ultimate assessment: “You look beautiful.” This is a professional and artistic appraisal; in his mind, they are statements of fact, as absolute as his understandings of himself. When Alma bridles at the patterned fabric of a dress she’s modeling, Reynolds instructs her: “Maybe you should change your taste.” And this foundational question of any relationship becomes the question of the film: will Alma change her taste to suit Reynolds, and if she does, will it satisfy him?

III. Consecration

The shared secret is a lover’s domain, but it’s within the terrain of art, where Reynolds resides in a rigorously observed formula, that he sews his vulnerabilities. Design courses through him; he is fashion’s medium as much as the reverse. When a wealthy patron insists Reynolds attend her wedding—a tenuous joining of her fortune with a dubious Latin oligarch’s—he explains, “I am not good for those things, I’m meant to be here,” in the workshop. It’s conceivably true; we never hear Reynolds talk about a substantive matter beyond work. At the house of Woodcock, work requires a uniform, a white smock that suggests preservation and sanctification.

IV. Phantoms

Mid-way through the 2013 music video “Where Are We Now?” the camera finds David Bowie, standing against a wall in an artist’s studio. It’s elegiac pop imagery. The lyrics revisit places from Bowie’s Berlin-era songs. And in medium shot, Bowie raises his chin, thoughts elsewhere, aware of being watched, not quite acknowledging those who watch him. He wears a dark blue shirt printed with the words “m/s Song of Norway.” It’s a cryptic, graphic tee, unless you know (or are told by the documentary The Last Five Years) that the shirt alludes to an old girlfriend who broke Bowie’s heart. She left him to star in a film, the title of which was Song of Norway. Without Bowie, we can’t say precisely why he would make public reference to a private wound. Memory gives art extra energy and density of meaning. It makes the past current; something painful becomes something meaningful. We can suppose he enjoyed his open secret. The irony that it took 50 years to wear heartbreak as lightly as a t-shirt.

Reynolds is also haunted, but whether that condition is self-imposed or unbidden is not clear. Along with plastic obsessions about texture, color and symmetry, Reynolds wants to transform history. “You can sew anything into the lining of a coat,” Reynolds tells Alma. Words, photos, coins. What possesses Reynolds would seem to be his mother, the woman who taught his craft and sustained his vision. His art gains potency from this kind of ventriloquism. But is it possible to keep on living with ghosts?

V. Complot

There is a ghost in every relationship. In this couple, the third wheel and chaperone is Cyril, the sister who enables Reynolds’ creative wishes with chaste dedication. The documentary L’Amour fou shows us a similar partnership, between the designer Yves Saint Laurent and lover Pierre Berge, who managed the business so that Saint Laurent was free to dwell on creative preoccupations. Like Saint Laurent, Reynolds doesn’t soften his own drama with humor or neuroticism; each mood is a microclimate, respected, lived through. Mostly, Reynolds inspires celebration; and Cyril’s work allows the party to happen. Anderson has said he hired the actress Lesley Manville in part because her skin is an f-stop brighter than anyone else’s. In looks and intonation, her Cyril has a cut glass clarity. She fields Alma’s attempts to alter Reynold’s life with polite disdain. Muses are disposable. This high priestess is a constant.

In this world, everyone is lavishly named. Reynolds Woodcock is a hyper-libidinized bird with a last name as a first name—a man with many barriers to breach. His stentorian sister carries a masculine handle: Cyril is “lord” or “master.” Alma’s name means “feed one’s soul” or “lifts the spirit.” Alma lifts Reynolds into the world of flesh and blood; she is a gift to him. As any student of literature knows, in some languages, the word for gift is also the word for poison.

VI. Ritual

The relationship between Reynolds and Alma resides where the ideal meets the real, a transom that any sustained relationship must eventually cross. Reynolds is a creature who communicates in symbols. Alma graspingly adapts to his world, moving between muse and laborer, trying signal in his language, designing and fabricating, until she finally stumbles upon real agency in another artform: food.

Feeding and feasting is the occupation of lovers, carnal in quality, suggestive of what romantic and erotic attachment elicits: renewed or satiated appetites. Food, like fashion, is a kind of performative art, created as an occasion and fleeting, of a moment. It’s on these animal terms that Reynolds and Alma have their fiercest encounters; what sustains can also kill. What doesn’t kill can reshape us.

VII. Incantation

Search “Marcello + sunglasses” and you’ll find the most famous close up of Marcello Mastroianni, a frame from 8 ½, in which the actor plays a harried version of the director Federico Fellini. On the run from financiers and mistresses, Marcello glances over the top of his frames. The attitude is insouciant, the emotion assured and remote. If 8 ½ shows how a privileged man can bedevil himself, it also suggests why so many are willing to suffer him. Mastroianni navigates the story with his own immutable charm. He carries it from role to role—a sense of boyish enjoyment and mannish attraction. Charm and its relation, narcissism, are the most confounding of traits—projecting a glow of warm feelings that disperses when the bearer of that nimbus floats away. You will never know if a charming person really likes you, because the target of their seduction is ultimately himself. Charm, let’s say, has to do with an inner narrative. The contrast between Mastroianni and Daniel Day-Lewis is instructive: Day-Lewis updated the 8 ½ role for the musical Nine. Unlike Mastroianni, Day-Lewis rarely seeks the camera lens. In fact, he seems to flee it.

This isn’t a condemnation, and quite clearly Day-Lewis is captivating onscreen. Another trait that extends across Day-Lewis’s work is a disarming shyness. I have the sense of looking at someone who is not interested in being looked at. One of his most menacing roles is as William Cutting in Gangs of New York, a man who wears a metal glyph over his iris. Day-Lewis’ characters are men whose eyes we can’t meet and who don’t seek outward. They remain in blind dialogue with themselves.

VIII. The one who waits

How many movies are founded on the cheap currency of the close up? As much as a musical score can force us to feel, the close up hurries intimacy with the audience as well as between the characters. Anderson’s film has a beautifully dense grain, rich blacks and starchy whites, smudgy romantic tweeds and sunsets. But Anderson pushes tropes aside—the lush sweetness of the score curdles into something more strident. And the sweet elusiveness of Day-Lewis allows him to push the film beyond a single point of view. Anderson finds the greatest intimacy when we look upon characters looking at one another. Reynolds poses for a photoshoot staring up at his muse, and we find ourselves charmed, we are in love. The stagiest blocking yields the most intimate feelings. Anderson uses diffidence to great effect: in part because Daniel Day-Lewis does not invite us in, we the audience look beyond him to Alma and to Cyril.

IX. Outside In

One of Daniel Day-Lewis’ career-making roles was an idea made into flesh, the womanizing surgeon in Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In Kundera’s conception, Tomas suffers from an absence of eternal return. If human life occurs only once, without the weight of eternity, life becomes as light as air in consequence and meaning. Tomas must choose for himself between irresponsibility (lightness) and accountability (weight).

Tomas’s perception of love arrives first from a kind of ignorance. He has an infinite number of romantic options, but with the young waitress Tereza, he can make only one choice: send her away forever, or keep her in his apartment and witness the results. Next, he understands his love through jealousy. Tomas sees Tereza dancing in the arms of another man, and what his wife can feel conceptually (a need to have her lover only for herself) has been made actual for Tomas. Like Reynolds, Tomas understands the depth of his feelings by encountering what he doesn’t like: to be made redundant, to be overlooked, to be no longer singular.

Day-Lewis has most often been an actor of vocation—performing injustice, greed, and menace across a variety of periods and obstacles. A woman is a complicating factor in the ambitions of a Day-Lewis character, but love rarely comes first. Perhaps this is the place of an adult in romance: outside of a feeling until you succumb to it.

X. The Turn

The movie shuttles across points of view as Phantom Thread examines the roles lovers play: sublime, foolhardy, suffering, joyous. Alma, unlike Reynolds, is more often in her feelings, offering the audience a path into the romance. Who hasn’t had a lover who would seem to hold all the cards? And Reynolds lives according to a game. He is momentarily satisfied when Alma becomes part of it. She inspires him to create; in turn, he elicits a beauty from her that does not show itself in any other way. Alma cannot help but be intoxicated; despite evidence of Reynolds’ strict terms, his is a sublime life.

I’ve noticed a certain audience satisfaction at Alma’s solution to preserve her relationship, which I won’t spoil except to say she finds a darkly witty way to hold Reynolds’s attention. Her innocence at the start of the film gives way to something more than willfulness as the young woman goes after what she wants—all in. Alma seems to become the principal character that Reynolds will never allow himself to be. She charms and seduces us. But a living relationship meets somewhere between two characters’ desires. So Alma’s most extreme gestures are meaningful only when Reynolds decides he likes them. How to sustain the life of a couple when part of inspiration’s source is newness and when attraction is often a tussle for control? Change the game. In Phantom Thread, the concession of loving is not an ending, nor a triumph—it is a turn of the screw.