“You can sew almost anything into the canvas of a coat,” explains British couturier Reynold Woodcock over his first dinner with Alma, the waitress who becomes his muse and lover; “When I was a boy, I started to hide things in the lining of the garments. Things only I knew were there. Secrets.” Phantom Thread, is the most recent film by Paul Thomas Anderson and the winner of this past year’s Oscar for Best Costume Design. It tells the story of the unraveling irony of this little confession, delivered by Daniel Day-Lewis, master of his craft.
Though it is well-known that certain famous real-life fashion designers have personal superstitions, the tension remains. In Woodcock’s world of 1950s London couture, fashion is a magnificent and meticulously crafted surface, where all that matters is the beauty that is seen, and where secrets and passions are not only irrelevant but thrust down with measured disdain. Hence the strangeness of the turn in Reynold’s dinner conversation with Alma, when his charm and flaunting expertise become briefly sincere. We have a premonition of a depth beneath his veneer. His emptiness belies substance.
Alma, played by Vicky Krieps, is in many ways the polar opposite of the subtly mannered Reynolds. With her difficult-to-place Luxembourgian accent, she feels like a foreigner in his world. Her confidence and strength manifest in her awkwardness. It seeps through the ruddiness of her blush when she first catches Reynold’s eye in the restaurant where she works and stumbles, in the deep red of the dress she wears to dinner with him, and perhaps most memorably in the directness of her look, her face glowing in the light of the hearth, as they sit across each other in Reynold’s country home. “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose,” she tells him with a smile, breaking the silence; he smiles back without reply. Later she says, “I think you’re only acting strong,” to which he says simply, “I am strong.”
As it turns out, they are both right, and that is what makes for such a unique and compelling, yet fraught and imbalanced, romance between them. Alma goes back to London with Reynolds and is given a room just above his studio. She suddenly finds herself thrust into the world of the workshop of beauty.
Though her straightforward simplicity and disdain of emotional concealment mark her as an outsider to this world of the House of Woodcock, Alma begins to fill it with her own personality. She gains a position in her own right outside of her relationship with Reynolds by learning how to sew alongside the other working women. In her efforts, she both depends upon the grandeur of the house of Reynolds and Cyril, but she does not let it own her. She models for Reynold’s creations with a proud patience; she explains in a voiceover: “I can stand endlessly. No one can stand as long as I can.”
Alma soon proves that this strength goes beyond passive endurance by reclaiming one of his dresses from a woman who obviously did not like it. Walking with Alma with the dress slung over his shoulder like a rare hide, Reynolds swings around mid-stride and kisses her passionately. “I love you,” she tells him, but he only smiles.
No matter how much love Alma gives him, Reynolds remains firmly entrenched in his own pristine world with its stringent codes, where every transgression triggers judgmental looks and caustic remarks. Alma, however, far from helpless before this man’s obsessive control, understands with a clarity at once sympathetic and savage the hidden side to Reynolds’ “fussiness.” Passionate as he is, the strenuousness of his work takes a toll, and though he is inhumanly strong in his creativity, his soft, human side does inevitably show. She wants to be the only one there for him when he opens up.
“I want to love him my way,” she tells Cyril, meaning not Cyril’s way and, in a sense, not Reynolds’ way. Alma is in her own world, in nothing more than her own body, her easily blushing face, and a curious red dress with an asymmetrical neckline she sewed herself. She is her own person despite being ranged against the whole Woodcock house, a place where she now lives and loves. It is a world that has given her new life, but itself is bloodless.
“I never really liked myself. I thought my shoulders were too wide. My neck was skinny like a bird. I had no breasts. I felt my hips were larger than needed. And my arms strong,” Alma says in a voiceover, “But in his work, I’ve become perfect. I feel just right. Maybe that’s how all women feel in his clothes.” We watch her character change physically as she passes through a succession of Reynolds’ clothes. The once bumbling waitress gains a confident poise as she becomes a model. When she a red hostess dress recalling her waitress uniform, she can glide and twirl about with the effortlessness of a dancer before a room of spectators.
When she sends everyone else, including Cyril, in the house away to surprise Reynolds with a dinner she has cooked and the dress she has made, Alma is confident to the point of flaunting the very rules, sartorial and gastronomical, she learned on the way to building that confidence. We know this will not go well; Cyril, who is “always right,” tells Alma it will not go well. In his insistence on a particular method of cooking asparagus, Reynolds rejects anything not done his own way. When Alma does not bend to his rules, he rejects her whole person. She leaves the table with tears of hurt and anger.
Yet Alma stays – she can stand endlessly. Here is where the drama begins, as the young woman emerges in the fullness of her passion and strength. In comparison, even Reynolds’ great edifice of elegance and control is but a house of straw in the storm. Alma shows is that loving tenderly, and tending to another’s vulnerable side, can quickly take on a ruthless edge. It can go so far as to reduce the loved one to a state of vulnerability through, what else would we call it, violence.
Alma laces Reynolds’ morning tea with finely chopped bits of poisonous mushroom. She waits patiently for it to take effect, so that when he does collapse she is there to take care of him.
Reynolds, denuded of his trappings and talents, vomits constantly and hallucinates visions of his much-beloved late mother. He is forced (by Alma, as he half realizes) to confront a world of emotions beyond his ken. We realize that he is so invested in his work because he has hidden his weakest side, the part of him that needs love the most, like a message in a bottle, a strip of fabric in the lining. It is the memory of his mother – the lock of her hair he keeps in the canvas of his jacket right over his heart. The comparison may seem counterintuitive, but is this not something like the devil’s pact in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, in which the composer receives unearthly artistic powers from the devil under this condition: Love is forbidden to you?
Alma has felt for the invisible spot of love in the loveless man she loves, and she means to occupy it. If Reynolds had seduced Alma at their first dinner by dabbing off her rouge, saying “I like to see whom I’m talking to,” Alma has seduced him in a similar, albeit much deeper way.
In a shot that begins under a worktable where dressmakers have spent the night repairing a damaged wedding dress, we see a room filled with morning light. The dress stands alone. Reynolds, now more or less recovered, enters in his pajamas. The camera follows him and seems to inspect his work. It is in fact Alma, whom we now see curled up asleep on the couch, that he approaches. She wakes as he lightly kisses her feet, and the two share a smile.
Sitting up on the couch, she is now center-frame, at last the recipient of the love she wanted, center between the dress and. He tells her at last that he loves her and asks her to marry him. “To break a curse,” he says; to free him from his artist’s inability to love. “Yes,” she replies, but in the same breath adds, “Will you marry me?” making the important moment not just Reynolds’ but also her own.
So, are we to think of this as Reynolds’ dream come true, Alma’s dream come true? To ask the more general question: Is Phantom Thread the story of Reynolds Woodcock or of Alma? Most of the film’s reviewers seem to think it is Reynolds’ story. I disagree. A number of them, including perhaps the Academy, think it is the story of Reynolds’ dresses. I agree, partially. And Alma’s story? In a literal but nontrivial way: yes, of course. The voiceovers are hers. She tells us about herself, her life with Reynolds. She is pictured in the first scene, the framing scenario, immersed in the warm red of the fireplace light, narrating her love for this “most demanding man.”
I probably would have looked right through this framing narration. Alma’s voice can be seen just be a device to get to Reynolds, the real character of interest – and it seems this is what most people writing about the film (and dare I say, even the director himself) did. Except that not so long before going to the Garden Theatre to watch Phantom Thread I had found myself in a situation I found uncannily similar to that frame scene by the fireplace.
It was a conversation with a friend of mine about love. She was telling me the story of a boyfriend she once loved to the point of near madness. She told me of how talented he was, working tirelessly through the night and moving with an incredible energy, but also of how unstable he could sometimes be. Yet, the more she spoke of him, the more she and her personality loomed in my mind. If I had to, I could easily write or locate in some book or movie a character like her ex, so often is such a personality used as an (anti)hero. I realized, much to my shame, that I did not have the words to describe my friend, the lines to sketch the unmistakable silhouette of her personality. Thus, it came as a surprise, even an exhilaration, to see my friend’s sensitivity and passion expressed so clearly in the character of Alma in all its contrast against the character of Reynolds – and it was little surprise that the strength of this character received little attention, that the critical spotlight fell on the “troubled genius.”
My friend and Alma. I think, for example, of their little reversals of male prerogative (what we might call “chivalry”). My friend likes to hold doors open for people, men and women alike; but as she’s told me, many guys, especially well-mannered ones, find it odd if she shows them the courtesy they would rather show her. They may even (politely) refuse to walk through. I was reminded of this by Reynolds’ response to Alma’s flipping the tables on him with a “Will you marry me?” of her own; rather than a serious reply, even in that moment, he says “Yes, I will” with a laugh that takes her proposal as little more than cheekiness. My friend laughs at these unimaginative and somewhat insensitive responses.
I can also easily imagine this friend saying the things Alma says with Reynolds in their fight over the dinner she has prepared:
Alma: “Stop playing this game!”
Reynolds: “What game? What precisely is the nature of my game?”
Alma: “All your rules and your clothes and all this money and everything is a game!”
As much as they are capable of striking the right poses and making their way through the theater-worlds of London or Princeton, Alma and my friend refuse to relinquish their full-bloodedness and spiritedness, even when it may make them feel at times foreign in a world that can have little place for the heart.
Moreover, mushroom-poisoning notwithstanding (which I am pretty certain is beyond my friend), Alma and my friend have little interest in melodrama. Reynolds speaks of “an air of quiet death in this house” and vacillates between callousness and helplessness, while Alma simply says what she feels and (as my friend loves to do) blows raspberries at the ridiculousness of games. There is something very courageous, I think, about laughing at the people and situations that would otherwise make you want to pull out your hair; about refusing to be hurt, in a sense, while remaining open and receptive to others. If anything, what is most remarkable (and frightening) about Alma’s character is her straightforwardness and unflinching lack of guilt (or righteousness) throughout the whole process of the poisoning.
In one of the later scenes, Alma leaves angrily, alone – in her puce satin dress, the first that Reynolds made for her – to the scandalously extravagant Chelsea Arts Ball after Reynolds coolly refuses to go with her. In one of those torturous games of chicken that anyone who has been love must know, each person trots off away from the other to see who turns around first. Surprise, surprise: It is Reynolds who blinks. He eventually goes after her, and amidst the midnight celebrations with crowds of garishly costumed revelers. He finds her and draws her aside. All the noise fades, and we hear only the music, see only the two of them looking at each other.
After all the sophisticated parties and dinners that made up the rest of the movie, this scene comes as a sort of fashion designer’s hell – not in the sense of bad fashion but of beauty torn loose from all moorings to feeling and become nothing but an impersonal, inhuman voluptuousness, a perfect wedding dress that, as Reynolds’ superstition goes, curses girls who touch it to never marry. Although already married with Alma, Reynolds only learns gradually, breaking the scales off his heart, just how much he stands to lose if he loses her.
Yet the pendulum of his feelings still swings, and at a certain point he becomes haughty and cruel again, blaming Alma for his frustration in work; but now she is the cool one, the one who knows what must be done. She picks the mushrooms again and uses a much larger amount to make an omelet – with gratuitous amounts of butter, in direct contradiction to Reynolds’ preferences – that she places in front of him, and which he eats smiling at her almost like a child. She tells him, with the same sureness of winning a staring contest: “I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open with only me to help. And then I want you strong again.” He continues to slowly chew his own unmaking, swallows, and then: “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick.” The theme, now redoubled in depth with strings and timpani, resounds as their lips meet – a total, knowing resignation of each in the other.
At the very beginning of the movie, Alma says, “Reynolds has made my dreams come true. And I have given him what he desires most in return. … Every piece of me.” She does this, as we see through the movie, with openness, sincerity, and a love so strong that it demands sincerity of a most insincere of men; and eventually, brought to the brink of death by her, he gives her that.
That said, especially in this moment of a long-needed increase in awareness of sexual harassment, we cannot overlook the power dynamic between Reynolds and Alma. It is an oppressive and often flat-out objectifying relation, at least in the beginning. Ene very compelling review calls it “a case of toxic masculinity.” To those who don’t see problematic signs in Reynolds’ behavior, it would perhaps have been better to read those reviews than this one of my own. This whole essay takes it for granted that one probably wouldn’t identify with or valorize the already much valorized couturier.
More than saying that there is something to salvage from this film, I want to claim that it is with all its restrictive and even abusive sexual politics just the film that it needs to be – even if it can only become such a film if read against its own grain and the tradition of Anderson and of the film industry in general. Thinking of my friend, I watched Phantom Thread as the story of Alma, played wonderfully by Vicky Krieps, a woman who triumphs over the most trying circumstances – and the most demanding man.
Of course, we can imagine another version of Phantom Thread in which Alma doesn’t ever put up with Reynolds’ shit and leaves as soon as he starts fussing at breakfast. But that would be to miss the significance of fashion not only for Reynolds but for her. She would miss the complex negotiations of changing and preserving herself – as a woman – in order to make her way in a world and in a love that she wants to make her own. I wonder whether my friend (and you, dear reader) would feel similarly about our lives in this institution where we work, love, and strive with laughter and tears to make our future. Sometimes it can feel like downright gaslighting and Stockholm Syndrome, and maybe sometimes that’s just what it is; but this four-or-so-year affair in orange and black, though it probably won’t be winning an Oscar for Costume Design anytime soon, confronts us with a similar perilously complex issue of negotiating our passions in a most demanding of places.
“Reynolds has made my dreams come true. And I have given him what he desires most in return. Every piece of me.”
These are Alma’s and the film’s first words. A cynic will scoff, but no, give a serious thought to this idea. How many of us have the courage to dream – how many of us have the courage to dispense with cynicism and see our dreams come true?
And perhaps even after the final image of Alma and Reynolds fades and the screen goes to black, when time goes by and old affections dim, we are left with this idea: that we tell the stories of those we love, because we love them, and because there are no stories that mean more to us, that say more about us, than these.