By Elaine Kim
Here is a man, Reynolds Woodcock, who has treaded past his years ever so lightly, a true artiste, whose life is bespoken by his meticulous sensibilities. He treats his women like he treats his dresses: with discerning eyes, precise, brisk hands and a love so tender but not without a strain of ferocity. Only, women snap back, pout and stare at him with indignant eyes. Women to him are passing beauties, most of them, and he cannot afford more than a glance at them, as if out the window of a train, in order not to lose his singular rule and order in the London atelier. Less transient are the designs, which recur on the bodies of multiple women. As follows, he is perennially unavailable; a staunch nonbeliever of marriage.
Then, the girl, of course — his muse, a waitress with a slight German accent, whose name Alma is derived from the Latin “almus,” meaning “kind” and “nourishing.” She’s a blank canvas that Reynolds sews into existence, into exuberance — when the dress and woman becomes one, it is difficult to hold back a wondrous gasp. Despite Reynolds’ petty, smug fits of irritation (“perhaps one day you will have taste,” he remarks to Alma once), Alma remains a forgiving figure to fall back on, much to the vocal exasperation of the audience in the theatre. When Alma plots vengeance with a certain poisonous fungi, almost a sense of reprieve washes over.
Perhaps, this movie is about the systemic put-down of a young woman who deteriorates in a very particular old man’s grasp, if we choose to characterize it that way. Certainly, if Alma were a friend of mine, I would do anything to fend her off from such a toxic relationship. Yes, the movie triggers such an intense, personal reaction. After the first act of the movie, one question comes to mind: what phantom thread links them so tightly that all these trespasses are pardoned?
The answer to that, unfortunately, is never elucidated. Though Paul Thomas Anderson, the auteur behind enigmatic pieces like “The Master” and “Magnolia,” effectively illustrates the parley of power between the couple, and though the movie is overall an elegant affair with beatific music like perfume that douses the scenes, it comes down to more style than substance. Walking out of the movie theatre, I felt like I’d watched an extended two-hour Chanel commercial. A beauty to look at, but not much more to whatever it is they are advertising to be desirable.
And this is a great shame: Alma is such a delicate, conflicted, beautiful character and we deserve to know more about what moves her heart for Reynolds. Then there is Reynolds, who in the final moments asks Alma for her hand in marriage (not a major spoiler, as it is hinted throughout the second act with a German princess’ wedding dress being the primary task for Reynolds). Why the sudden change in heart from being a permanent bachelor? Not much changed: Alma had always been there as the caretaker, next to Reynolds’ sister, Cyril. The million-dollar question only draws a deep sigh of concern and confusion.
Daniel Day-Lewis, of course, dazzles as always. As this might be his last performance in a film, there’s more attention drawn to him than ever. Perhaps he could shoot for his fourth Academy Award as Best Actor, though the competition is tight with Gary Oldman and Denzel Washington in the mix. Vicky Kripps, too, as Alma, pulls off the strong-willed ingénue with an impeccable performance. There’s believable chemistry between them, and as their words are interposed with undulating piano music, we’re convinced there’s a pure form of love sewed and tucked under the screen; but then, who knows, love is a phantom thread after all.
Contact Elaine Kim at elainekm ‘at’ stanford.edu.