Hungry Boys and Girls: On Phantom Thread’s Strange Kinship

Phantom Thread | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

“There is an air of quiet death in this house,
and I do not like the way it smells.”

In London’s Fitzroy Square sits an indomitable row of Georgian townhouses. Like many streets of its ilk, the buildings are hard to distinguish, all marked by hardy white brick and black iron fences. A home to writers, artists, and poets, from Virginia Woolf to George Orwell, Fitzrovia is not the most immediate choice of location to represent
haute couture: one pictures Paris, Milan or New York first. But here at number 4 Fitzroy Square is the House of Woodcock, a badge of Britain’s high-end fashion. The house’s many hallways and doors are a shelter for the elites, from royalty to fading socialites, but its name belongs to two siblings of a more humble origin: the meticulous Reynolds and assiduous Cyril Woodcock. Together they keep watch over the comings and goings into this ethereal realm of luxury dressmaking. As they feel the silken grasp of their dreamlike, perfect dress being made reality, the clientele would be forgiven for feeling as if they have abandoned the field of mortals. This is no coincidence.

Phantom Thread is a radical love story tailored for 21st century tastes, spun from the lush if arcane world of haute couture in post-war Britain. Acclaimed for Daniel Day Lewis’s extraordinary final performance as the eccentric atelier Reynolds Woodcock, Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth film deals with the toil of love, self-love, compromise and creativity, exploring how romance and true love can rob its participants of their autonomy, sometimes for good reason. Part fairy tale, part ghost story, the film starkly pushes the genre of Gothic Romance into the positively morbid.

Yet the fundamental ambiguity in the human relationships casts the longest shadow in this story, filling every corner of the stately rooms in which two unabashedly English souls organize their lives to deny their own fragility. Brother and sister and lovers are suspended in a grand and flawless labyrinth of caution, perfection, self-deception and cruelty, but as with anything in the world of the couturier, this madness can be sewn up beneath the sovereignty of fabric.


Reynolds is a virtuoso dressmaker whose perfectionism and control is in equal parts maddening, awe-inspiring, and affecting. He says in earnest that he cannot marry because he “makes dresses,” and this binary is ruthlessly enforced. Each dress is a product of not just perfect design but a perfect lifestyle. Behind the drawing, needlework, and inevitable schmoozing of the clientele is a flawless routine, painstakingly cultivated in support of Reynolds’s creativity to the point that it is nearly an art form in itself. Every word, gesture, and stroke of the hand Reynolds makes is impeccable, right down the way he slips into his socks and buffs his black brogues, a cloth choking his index finger. It seems as if these intensely deliberate movements are attempts to exceed the humble nature of ordinary things, that this too-too solid flesh can finally be transcended by way of the most superb clothing.

He confesses to being a “confirmed bachelor,” but this is an understatement. Reynolds’s love affair is with the divinity of the dress—he is never more alive than when he is watching women adorning his creations for the first time. Whether eyeing them through peepholes or fawning over them like the stars he has created, once the dress has arms and legs inside, it is, in the words of Victor Frankenstein, alive—an immaculate conception to be worshiped. In this way, Reynolds plays both God and high priest in the House of Woodcock, his grand Georgian church of appearances pervaded by the beauty of perfection made possible, its rituals administered by his shrewd sister, Cyril (brought to indomitable life by Lesley Manville). 

These two are stitched together by a holy ghost, a mother who died young, and we will come to see that the visions of perfection that drive the tailor of Fitzrovia are products of this loss, a pathology of their closeness. We meet the siblings as they debut a new dress to a beaming Countess, but the shadow of the mother looms large, and all Reynolds can think about is death. The superstition that has underpinned his life, the one leaving him with emptiness, is a ‘curse’ bestowed on those who touch wedding dresses before wearing them, a curse consecrated by the premature death of  ‘mama.’

These siblings are more than the perfect business duo: they are bound together by grief, giving each other solace through a rare closeness. Reynolds sublimates the obsession with a spectral mother and this curse, hitching his fear of losing control into every aspect of the House of Woodcock. Having Cyril facilitate his routines, patterns, and ‘games,’ as they are later described, means both siblings can achieve mastery over their history. While Cyril could be pitched as a silhouette straight out of Hitchcock, a debonair Mrs. Danvers, in fact, is more like a reflection of Reynolds, providing a model of pragmatism as a tonic to his mercurial nature. The face of the enterprise, she sets the stage for Reynolds’ wooing of his customers, as if the main attraction is in fact this most peculiar and handsome man. Everyone needs a Cyril in their life to remind them where the bread is buttered.

In an early scene, Reynolds’s fastidious sister is already busy sweeping up the dying embers of his latest flame. Poor Johanna sits doe-eyed at an immaculate breakfast table, desperately offering the grand tailor a danish pastry. It is a doomed attempt to solicit even a few words from this man who presumably was once infatuated with her. “Didn’t I tell you before, Johanna…no more stodgy things,” he says, not bothering to pull his eyes from his pen and paper. The reasoning goes unsaid, but is heard loud and clear. Dropping the olive branch, she simply crows, “Where have you gone, Reynolds?” Cyril, meanwhile, purses her lips and waits for the penny to drop. He is delivering the dress today, with no room to spare for the inferior matters of the heart. 

Later, Cyril will nudge him that it’s high time she quietly scoops Johanna back on the streets. It’s no easy feat coercing a moody teenager, and Cyril may not necessarily enjoy hemming the more uneven parts of this shared enterprise, but if it’s what it takes, she’ll be damn good at it. Why should this cycle of carefully achieved creativity be broken? “I have a deeply unsettled feeling,”  he confesses, plagued by visions of ‘mama.’ It seems every corner of Reynolds’s interior life is, for Cyril, a mere matter of good housekeeping. With a perfect softness she suggests that he head down to the country tonight, and he follows.


Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), a blushing hotel waitress turned muse. Reynolds makes this clumsy and charming girl feel beautiful in a way that she never expected. Yet Alma is plain-speaking and almost as stubborn as her suitor. Nobody asked her permission to sit obediently outside this circle. She knows what she wants from Reynolds, persisting in her affair with him despite his abrasiveness. The more she presents her willfulness, the more callous he becomes. It takes her vibrant energy and equal stubbornness to remind him that all these ‘games’ may not be necessary. She sees that, despite his absurd fussiness, this boy is fueled by hunger, and hunger belongs to the realm of the flesh, a place where things can be normal and natural.

Alma does not yet grasp how far each dress is entwined with Reynolds’s fragile personality, which gives Cyril the authority to make his love affairs matters of the house. 

Unlike Reynolds, Anderson loves hatching surprises throughout Phantom Thread, but none is quite as unsettling as the moment in which Alma’s seduction is twisted into a severe cross-examination. While Reynolds asks for Alma’s help in crafting her a dress, in steps Cyril, who had planned to join her brother in the country a day later, while Alma stands there in her underwear. Not one to hesitate, Cyril raises Alma’s polite handshake into an epic power move, stepping up close to identify the scents on her breath without fault: sandalwood and rosewater, sherry, lemon. Reynolds carries on—just out of frame, for as the saying goes, three’s a crowd. As Cyril steps up to take the poor girl’s measurements without hesitation, Alma realizes her body has been captured by a gaze she isn’t used to. Reynolds gives an impression of the earnest, vulnerable artist, but both Woodcocks are artists in their own way, always hungry for fresh material, a new canvas to paint on, something to chip away at. The dress is how Reynolds can capture and control women, and the phantom is just as much what wears the thread. Only Alma has no interest in being a ghost.

Alma finds herself in the same position we found Joanna—her back is even literally against the same wall between the Woodcock siblings. Accused of being too noisy at breakfast (notice now that Reynolds has no issue gobbling ‘stodgy’ pastries in a huff), Cyril advises her to take hers in private. The true confidante, Cyril knows these formalities inside out, as he expects to be understood. But try as she might, Alma cannot acquiesce. He does not hesitate to view her in his own light, to catch her under his needle, but she must know him in her own way, too. Alma starts to scratch at the facade of the house the Woodcocks have built together, Reynolds defers to Cyril. Tired of standing around waiting for the hungry boy, Alma tries to assert her own dislike for the cloth she wears , but Cyril returns an implicit reminder that on matters of taste, she has little authority. “She’s right,” Reynolds purrs, “Cyril is always right.” 

To grow her own conspiracy with Reynolds, she tries to cultivate her own individual sense of loyalty to the House of Woodcock. The House’s prosperity and reputation might be the folie à deux of these two siblings, but Alma invests faith and esteem in the house to earn Reynolds’s trust in a way Cyril can’t: using her experience as both model and seamstress to feed his pride and impetuosity. She proves this by rousing him into having a drunk, desperate client stripped of her dress, lest she soil its perfection with her shame. Having found a way to excite the dour and lanky tailor, Alma is rewarded with a bare-faced movie-kiss.

The pattern soon returns. Reynolds cannot countenance any fundamental disturbance to his power. It is not that Reynolds tacitly lets Cyril become a buffer, he is complicit in sustaining the triangle of madness to guard against the threat of love, keeping both women trapped in this death drive of the dress. Through close maintenance of her brother’s behavior, a routine “best not shaken,” Cyril perceives her own power in keeping things moving, so long as placating Reynolds sustains their house. The respect she receives from her brother, however, is as fickle as that of his lovers. Although he fondly calls her his ‘so-and-so,’ he is as callous to her as to others when he sees fit. It is easy to forget that, although they share a history, the fears and dreams that spring from the death of their mother are irreconcilable. Despite having built the house together, a monument to childhood grief, unlike Reynolds, Cyril is not consumed by ghosts and curses like her brother. In fact, she may be more open to this young girl’s daring style than him (though likely unaware of its final strategy).

Just before Alma sets her loving coup in motion, Cyril makes a cool plea to her brother, if he’s going to make her a ghost, don’t keep her waiting around like an idiot. She is, in fact, very fond of Alma. Daring to toss a signature sarcasm-soaked rebuff to this idea her way, Cyril grinds him to a halt. “Don’t pick a fight with me, you certainly won’t come out alive,” her lip briefly quivering in a flash that could move the house’s foundations. She may not have believed she’d live to see her brother’s obsession upended, but Cyril is no jealous sister scorned. Alma’s methods may be borderline psychotic, but Cyril seems to, in time, appreciate that whatever it takes to break the phantom’s spell over her brother is a worthy cause.


After noticing the change in Reynolds’ demeanor when falling sick earlier in the film, Alma finally finds her reprieve through a careful dose of poisonous mushrooms, slipped somewhere into his lapsang when she thinks it’s time to settle down. The power this has over the curse is all-too-evident, causing Reynolds to faint and tear the bodice of a Belgian Princess’s wedding dress. Now he is bed bound, trying hard not to whimper and reveal how scared he is. The defenses he has built, fortified by Cyril, are crumbling. Mid-fever, now Reynolds can accept her plain, unadulterated care, but first he is paid a visit by the apparition of his dead mother, clothed in her wedding dress, when Alma leaves him alone for a moment. Anderson does not dabble in trickery—this phantom bride is very much there in the room. It is confirmed to us here that, in his head at least, Reynolds does truly move in a world occupied by both the living and the dead.

Only, now here comes the mother who can do what his industrious teacher perhaps never did: sidle up with a damp cloth, ready to wrap his feet and care for him in a puddle of sweat. For a moment, Alma has won, and Cyril is cast out for daring to bring a doctor. A real source of strain on the siblings’ codependency, Anderson does not up the stakes and have Cyril try and wrest back control. Playing the substitute mother is not her priority, and her protectiveness over his routine is just as much over her own. When Alma even physically shuts her out, there is no fuss. Cyril does not begrudge her brother a pathway out of the shadow of the old ghost. When Reynolds heads down the next morning to find Alma asleep at the foot of the Princess’s wedding dress, the camera creeps in on them, carefully edging the bodice out of the frame as he asks Alma to marry him, to “stop his sour heart from choking…to break a curse.” 

No sooner are they wed, with Cyril’s apparent blessing (she may even be beaming herself), does the cycle start to rear its head again. Reynolds has given up the ghost of the perfect wedding dress he has been chasing, but his quirks are still solid, bristling at his wife’s biting her spoon, or shaking her dice for too long. He unconsciously bites back at her victory by regressing to old norms, but only because he knows that, unlike the dead who cannot betray us, Alma has the freedom to withdraw her love. Once again, he needs Cyril to serve as his protector. Only now, this sister isn’t biting.

Reynolds seems to explain his most recent unsettled feeling by way of a complaint: the long absence of an important client, the Countess Henrietta Harding from the opening sequence. In the same way defusing a bomb protects everyone in the vicinity, it would seem Cyril has been shielding her brother’s fragile ego from the truth. But these two are nothing if they can’t be candid about the business, and so Cyril relents: she has gone to another house, apparently, for something a little more chic.

This bombshell clears the way for the last of Reynold’s delicious, immortally histrionic outbursts:  “Chic? Whoever came up with that filthy little word ought to be spanked in public. They ought to be hung, drawn and quartered, fucking chic.” 

And yet, as ever, Cyril knows that the venom on the coiffed cobra’s tongue is a facade. Wheedling him like only a sibling can, she  backhandedly reassures Reynolds. “It shouldn’t concern you,” she purrs, but these soft, pacifying words only inflame the wound further.

“It does concern me, because it’s hurt my feelings.” Allergic to a momentous howl of self-pity like this, Cyril can only give her brother an opening to cut the bullshit, asking plainly what this moaning is really about. He refuses to budge. The only justification he can muster is “I don’t like being turned away from,” a banal if wholly revealing statement

“Nobody does,” Cyril counters, “but I don’t want to hear it, because it hurts my ears.”

Soon enough, Reynolds is entreating her to help him fix the terrible mistake of his nuptials. The new ghost is turning him inside out and siblings against each other. “She does not fit in this house.” Sliding in quietly, Alma announces her presence and is swiftly demolished by Reynolds. No matter. Cyril and Alma artfully avoid indulging him, acknowledging their new mutual respect for each other in this fussy man’s life. Cyril knows what she’s good at, and she can see that Reynolds’s resistance to change is hurting more than his private life, but the business. Perhaps Alma’s influence might make the House of Woodcock a little more ‘chic,’ and maybe her admiration for her now sister-in-law is too solid to intervene. He is a husband now, and Cyril can see the wood from the trees. ‘Do what you’re going to do,’ she seems to say with those dark teal eyes. Time to grow up, little brother.


As much as this unconventional family might try to deny, the House of Woodcock is more than a luminous place full of dresses, rooms, doors, and people. In Alma’s eyes, it is a glamorous purgatory, a space where the surface plays with tortured substance in a series of twisted games. It does no good to fight it, for the surface is always irresistible, and it pays a pretty penny too. The game can be interrupted, but it will never stop. It is who these siblings are, after all, and they have come too far. As Mr. Woodcock admits in his proposal to Alma, a house that does not change is a dead house. Reynolds here betrays his understanding that for a house to become a home for all, some customs, traditions and routines must be negotiated with, with a new history threaded through its inhabitants. We are even treated to a vision of Alma, Reynolds and Cyril taking turns pram-pushing.

The ghosts of our pasts may make us who we are,  but memories are often more torn and frayed than we think, and they leave our sense of the present confused. In these moments, we can cling to the familial bonds, no matter how unsentimental, because they are, ultimately, unshakeable. Phantom Thread embraces the reality that, just as with romantic bonds, this comfort just as easily breeds inertia, emitting an unsettling stench of death, like a flower forever wilting. If a house that never changes is a dead house, the family needs to adopt vigilance, and not hold vigil. Occasionally, they can indulge new flavors, tastes, and appetites.