As with all Paul Thomas Anderson films, there is a soft precision in “Phantom Thread” that confidently sets the viewer in the period, allowing for the film to take other liberties that play against expectations. The plot for example, lulls the viewer into a false sense of familiarity before taking two separate twists that completely change the nature of the entire film.
The two main characters Woodcock and Alma are layered with multitudes, both equally fascinating and terrible in their own fascinating way.
Woodcock is petulant, exacting and unforgiving. He doesn’t suffer fools, nor does he permit his routine to be interrupted for anything or anyone. His attention to detail makes for an amazing designer with impeccable clothing but an unapproachable grump in social situations. One needs only look to how he treats his clients, his sister and even his muses to understand how he views everyone else. Everything subservient to his work and all who don’t lend themselves to this are anathema to him.
His strange relationship with his mother and sister seem to have rippled out to affect how he treats all women and coaxed him to retreat into himself and away from the world. It’s no coincidence that he lives in the same house that he works in. It’s both economic but also safe and comfortable. Some might say claustrophobic and stifling.
Alma is mysterious and her introduction would seem to indicate that she’ll just be one more muse in Woodcock’s long line of discarded women. At first she appears shy and clumsy, somewhat mousy and incredibly naïve category. After all, what woman would agree to visit the house of a man she’s just met or agree to strip down to her negligee for him? But as the film progresses we learn that under the surface Alma, is far more devious and sinister than at once conceived.
His previous pattern involved choosing a live dress-form to clothe and copulate with but Alma balks at this tight control. Here Alma finds an ally in Cyril and isn’t so easily bullied. Oh she plays along as you can see in the second breakfast scene. She butters her toast in silence and moves with mute exactness. But as soon as she’s married she exaggerates her former behaviour, possibly to play with her newfound power. And as Woodcock has married her he seems incapable of even voicing his discontent. Instead we’re left to watch him squirm as he likely never has in his entire life.
What he and the audience don’t notice is that she was never weak or naive. She’s in fact very daring and it’s only when she starts to push back against his routine, fights his wish to control her outer appearance and inner thoughts that we see the real Alma. She forces Woodcock to acknowledge their relationship when previously he made no concessions or allowances for the women in his life, including his muses.
She is the aggressor, the one pushing for physical intimacy while he’d rather work. Their relationship in fact is at first an outgrowth of his work. He fits her for dresses, exhibits them and works under his harsh gaze. But she wants more and won’t be bullied by either him or Cyril. In fact she puts up with quite a lot of verbal abuse and refuses to leave when her situation is made uncomfortable. In fact in the second half of the film the balance of power shifts to her after she makes a drastic decision that moves the film into uncharted territory.
Difficult to categorize but pleasurably unpredictable, “Phantom Thread” is a quiet, unassuming film that hides a myriad of secrets that will change how you view the characters.