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Phantoms, Desire and Vulnerability in Daniel Day Lewis's Final Film

Lynne Tillman on Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, a tightly wrought film about a tightly controlled man

Phantom Thread (2017) has roles for several meanings of phantom: ‘Something apparent to sense but with no substantial existence; an object of continual dread; a representation of something abstract, ideal or incorporeal.’ Director Paul Thomas Anderson wrote lines to hear and follow, pull together, like seams in a gown designed by Reynolds Woodcock, its couturier protagonist. Portraying a man as an exquisite atavism, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Woodcock is a severe character, rigid and also fragile.

Skin is the largest organ of the body; it encases bodies. Fabric is a second skin, can be malleable or stiff and, to clothe bodies, can be used for different effects. A couturier creates dresses for specific bodies; he shapes the woman, the way she moves in space, say, to his taste, his heart’s desire. Desire oversees every aspect of a garment’s construction – bodice, hang, hem, buttons, snaps. Each detail – stitch – must be perfect, the way no psyche is: for example, Woodcock’s. His name, by way of Edith Wharton, is a perfect detail for Anderson’s tale of gender relations. Is Woodcock made of wood, is his cock? Will it stand (up) for a woman?

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Phantom Thread, 2017. Courtesy: Focus Features, LLC/UPI Media

Phantom Thread, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Focus Features, LLC/UPI Media

It is morning. Seamstresses march up several flights of stairs in Woodcock’s London house to the atelier; they don white coats. Woodcock is dressing, with no profligate movement. At breakfast, he drinks tea from a perfect white bowl. He reads the paper, he is in himself, won’t tolerate noise, certainly not from his female lover also at the table. He refuses her entreaties, like material that won’t give. His sister, Cyril, who oversees the business and him – she is a precision timepiece – watches everything. At dinner alone with Woodcock, she offers to get rid of his lover. It’s time, she says. She takes care of even that untidiness.

The clock of psychology ticks. Seeming to emerge from a dream state, Woodcock speaks: ‘Mama is near. I can feel her.’ Cyril appears surprised, without evincing it. ‘The dead are near. They are watching over us.’ He isn’t spooked, he says, he’s comforted, but Cyril sees his unrest and suggests he drive to their country house.

Near their house, at an inn, a young, smiling waitress takes his order for a huge English breakfast. Woodcock follows her with his eyes; flirting, he invites her to dinner. She hands him a note, having anticipated his invite: ‘For the hungry boy, my name is Alma.’ Alma asserts herself, and never stops. Unlike the previous lover, Alma talks back, insists on making noise. When Woodcock introduces Cyril to Alma, Cyril smells her neck to ascertain her scent – animals do this to each other.

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Phantom Thread, 2017. Courtesy: Focus Features, LLC/UPI Media

Phantom Thread, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Focus Features, LLC/UPI Media

In Spanish, alma means soul, and there’s an idiom, tener el alma en un hilo: ‘to have one’s heart in one’s mouth’. This is Anderson’s Alma, though not neatly. Woodcock’s heart is not just in his mouth, it is his mouth, just as an infant, in a sense, is only mouth, dependent for survival on finding the nipple, eating to live.

The film was shot in an actual London townhouse by Anderson; in tight quarters the camera needed to exist as if hiding in plain sight, a secret watcher. This recondite story keeps secrets within secrets – Woodcock sews words into hems of dresses. In a secret pocket, he carries a lock of his mother’s hair. The seamstresses repair a precious garment, spoiled by Woodcock, furtively. The many scenes of food and eating – at breakfast, dinner, lunches in the country kitchen – remind viewers that Woodcock’s nurturing mother is his secret love.

Mama taught him to sew and, aged 16, he designed and made her wedding dress for her second marriage. A picture of her wearing it hangs on his bedroom wall. He talks to her when he’s ill, delirious (part of Alma’s secret): ‘Are you here? Are you always here?’

This story is almost impossibly pregnant.

Scenes are composed and tended like garments from the house of Woodcock: a tightly controlled and wrought film about a tightly controlled man. I remembered Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975): Jeanne’s every gesture created her character and story. And, Yasujiro Ozu, because of the presence of silence: Woodcock needs quiet to think, maybe to hear his mother’s voice.

The director gives Woodcock quiet. He doesn’t use music to swell emotion. With its slow, lyrical movements, the soundtrack – composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood – haunts scenes with melodies from their unconscious.

Here is a fairy tale about male vulnerability, Woodcock’s need and fear of being cared for and loved. The tale lives in the contemporary among the dramatic, awkward shifts occurring between the sexes and genders. It wonders if men are able to relinquish power for love; it worries what will happen when and if they do.

This article appears in the print edition of the April 2018 issue, with the headline 'Heart in Mouth'.

Lynne Tillman lives in New York, USA. Her recent collection of essays, What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, was shortlisted for th 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. She is the recipient of a 2015 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Awards in Arts Writing. 

Issue 194

First published in Issue 194

April 2018
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