Phantom Thread


“Alma is well-matched partner in Reynolds’ games of power and manipulation. She is not defenseless. She has agency, cunning, and intelligence.”

Title: Phantom Thread (2017)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson 👨🏼🇺🇸

Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸

Technical: 4/5

Phantom Thread is the sum of deconstructed parts. By wielding an intimate camera and isolating sound, Paul Thomas Anderson brings fascination to such mundanities as a rustled newspaper, a knife scraped over toast, or a bone-deep sigh. Together, they weave a greater, eerie tale that keeps its audience unbalanced with questions we aren’t sure we want the answers to.

It’s textbook perfection. But somehow, counterintuitively, the luxury of the film turns clinical beneath the assessing eye of the couturier we follow, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). Under the superb performance by Day-Lewis, everything is perfect. Nothing is ugly. Not even the brimming tension and emotional violence that passes between Reynolds and his seemingly sweet and provincial muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps) can be considered flawed, as Alma is quickly revealed to be Reynolds’ equal in everything. Together, they waltz with their darker sides in perfect harmony.

This turns Phantom Thread into a surreal thought exercise. But without some imperfections—some humanity—I just couldn’t find anything to sink my teeth into. Phantom Thread is a twisted fairytale. But like a fairytale, it lives somewhere above me, never touching ground.

Gender: 4.25/5
Does it pass the Bechdel TestYES Assessment: 44% of creative decision-makers were female.

By the trailer alone, I thought Phantom Thread was going to be yet another male-centric movie that heaps praise upon tortured genius, nevermind the costs that women have to bear, invisibly, and often to their destruction. I’m thinking about Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (2015) or the BBC’s Sherlock, both of which leave a trail of broken women behind their titular heroes. Worse yet, I’m thinking about real life versions, such as Stanley Kubrick’s abuse of Shelley Duvall for The Shining (1980).

I was so relieved to be proven wrong. Although the line walked by Anderson is a fine one indeed, as evidenced by other film critics lambasting the film for this very trope, I found the problematic areas dissolved as soon as Alma was presented as well-matched partner in Reynolds’ games of power and manipulation. Alma is not defenseless. She has agency, cunning, and intelligence, and Anderson givers her enough respect to make her own decisions—even if her decision to stay with a controlling man seems like a mistake to us.

It helps that this film pads its cast with women, as should any story set in the fashion industry. Reynolds’ sister Cyril, played by Lesley Manville, is a major presence as the Woodcock siblings are deeply codependent. Meanwhile, supporting roles and minor bits are filled by glamorous clientele, hardworking seamstresses, and deferential house staff.

This may be a woman’s world, but Reynolds is the locus around which they all rearrange themselves. Making a man the narrative center of gravity is unremarkable in cinema. And as much as Alma and Cyrial are his equals—or even his superiors, as the film alludes to, at times—they live in Reynolds’ universe, with the burden on them to tilt the dynamics back in their favor. Alma, especially, has to work for her man’s attentions. And that is an age-old message that doesn’t feel very empowering at all.

Race: 2/5 Assessment: 0% of creative decision-makers were POC (!!!)

Set in 1950s London, Phantom Thread is cast with exclusively white actors. This is accurate to the times, when ethnic minorities across England and Wales numbered at 103,000. To compare, the UK population was just over 50 million in 1951, meaning 99.8% of the British population was white.

Still, this means all 72 of the actors in Phantom Thread—a film made in 2017, for 2017 audiences—are white. When will actors of color find this level of sustained job opportunity? In one Oscar season alone, we’re contending with three all-white casts nominated for Best Picture: Dunkirk (2017), Darkest Hour (2017), and Phantom Thread. And it seems noteworthy that all three films are set in the UK.

If this is a trend, it’s one that needs to be challenged, and soon. The effects are already underway, with initial findings of black actors in British film showing that 59% of films surveyed between 2006-2016 featured no black characters. Furthermore, those that exist are pigeonholed into stereotypical genres: films about Africa, crime, civil rights, and slavery.

It’s no wonder, then, that talented British actors such as David Oyelowo are saying:

“If I looked like Benedict [Cumberbatch] or Eddie Redmayne, I could do the films they have done that are being celebrated now. But myself, Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor had to gain our success elsewhere because there is not a desire to tell stories with black protagonists in a heroic context within British film.”

Hey, if this means American directors get to develop modern, complex films like Black Panther (2018) or Get Out (2017) with the best of the UK, then so be it. But if the British film industry wants to stay vibrant, it should shift its gaze from the comfortable, white spaces of pre-WWII eras and look under their noses for the incredible talent and stories they have right at home.

Deduction for LGBTQ: -0.25

Early on in the film, Reynolds proclaims himself to be a “confirmed bachelor” who is “incurable”—Victorian euphemisms for being gay. Furthermore, Anderson has said he based the fictional Reynolds off the life of Cristóbal Balenciaga, the Spanish couturier who was homosexual and deeply in love with his longtime partner, Vladzio Jaworowski d'Attainville.

I was confused, then, when the script unfolds into what appears to be a sexual relationship between Reynolds and Alma. While the camera never ventures beyond their shut door, Reynolds and Alma share impassioned kisses and eventually marry.

I can’t help but feel the same sense of “straightwashing” that David Ehrenstein points out in his review. I’m not saying the film requires an LGBTQ lens in order to be successful. But I just wonder why Anderson didn’t go the more natural route of making Reynolds gay. The central relationship with his muse, Alma, wouldn’t have been impacted; in fact, it may have even added layers of complexity. After all, the territory of tension between lovers its well trodden. How much more interesting would it have been to explore the aesthetic relationship between an artist and his muse?

Mediaversity Grade: C 3.33/5

Phantom Thread appears male-centric and tropeish at the outset. What a relief, then, to have that framework be turned on its head halfway through, as Alma holds her own and the film transforms into a dangerous waltz between two strange and riveting creatures. You won’t find racial diversity, and you won’t even find fluid sexuality in a film based on a gay fashion icon. But you will find something precarious and beautiful, and sometimes, that will just have to be enough.

Grade: CLi