One Hand, Sewing: Phantom Thread

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'O love, so honest of face, so unjust in action,
Never so dangerous as when denied,
Let your kindness tell us how false we are, your bloody correction
Our purpose and our pride.'
– C. Day Lewis, 'The Assertion', Word Over All (1943)

Paul Thomas Anderson's quietest and most subdued film to date, Phantom Thread lacks any of the fireworks - literal or otherwise - of his previous seven features.  Effectively built upon a series of intimate dialogues circling themes of power and control, it would hardly be surprising to discover one day that it had originally been intended as a four-act play rather than as a work for the cinema.  Its languid pacing, shored up by a neoclassical Jonny Greenwood score steeped in the tradition of figures like Malcolm Arnold or Ronald Binge, serves to underline the strong sense that this is, in some ways, intended to be a 'film about nothing'. 

At its heart is a lingering question about the ambiguity of centrality: namely, is dressmaker Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock actually the film's prime mover, or is he merely the focal point for a different central character, his confidant Alma Elson?  From her opening monologue, in which she positions herself as the film's storyteller, the Reynolds seen by the audience is substantially hers: the most demanding man, obsessed by precisions in taste and environment, capable of forming instant opinions about everything; a man disgusted by the detritus of humanity, by uncleanliness, by the noises and dirt of life itself; a man beholden to silences and stasis and the air of quiet death.

With every scene in which Reynolds' domineering petulance is asserted, accepted and rewarded, we come to expect that Alma is to be able to form no intervention in his character or story.  Like the film's audience, passively witnessing actions rather than affecting them, she is presented with Reynolds as an immutable fact.  During the first half of the film, Alma serves only as a function of Reynolds: the lens through which he may be observed.  We begin to believe that Reynolds will, in fact, remain the prime mover of the film: that all around him are merely his subjects, the extension of a will that demands there be no dissent, no unsettling of order, and that there not be altogether too much movement at breakfast.

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As for the figure of Reynolds, whether or not he is to remain the film's driver, he is undoubtedly its overriding focus.  Playing a British character for perhaps the first time in 25 years, performer Daniel Day-Lewis invests the cagey couturier with an accent and mannerisms which may well have been drawn from his own early background and experiences.  Indeed, it doesn't seem implausible that substantial inspiration for the role may have come from his own father, the poet and novelist Cecil Day-Lewis.  53 years old when his son was born, the elder Day-Lewis would have been roughly the same age as his son is now during his most formative years; his long, steady decline in health may well have left its mark on the depictions of an ailing Reynolds Woodcock.  (He died in 1972 at the age of 68, four years after becoming Poet Laureate, when his son was 15 years old.)

More crucial, though, is the nature of Cecil Day-Lewis: a man who by all accounts cut an elegant figure, who was certain in his actions and behaviour and decidedly assured of his own intelligence.  Tellingly, Daniel Day-Lewis' mother, the actor Jill Balcon, described her husband as a man who, to their children, must have appeared 'detached, which is not uncommon with artists who are preoccupied' [1] - an apologia that would not sound out of place in Alma's ongoing explanation of Reynolds to Dr Hardy (a character whose name echoes that of Thomas Hardy, the writer buried in the same churchyard as the poet Day-Lewis).

Unlike Reynolds, however, Cecil Day-Lewis left an apology of his own, dedicated to his children, and forming part of the valedictory piece in his final collection of poems, edited by Balcon:

'Forgive my coldnesses, now past recall,
Angers, injustice, moods contrary, mean or blind;
And best, my dears, forgive
Yourselves, when I am gone, for all
Love-signals you ignored and for the fugitive
Openings you never took into my mind.'
– C. Day Lewis, 'Children Leaving Home', Posthumous Poems (1979)

These are words one would not find out of place from a dying Reynolds Woodcock: the self-justifying appeal for forgiveness that he could not seek in life.  The contradictory underlying qualities it embodies are the ones that emerge, too, in Reynolds as the film progresses, as Alma becomes more of an obvious participant in its action.  In the end, it becomes clear that Reynolds does not simply seek to control Alma, but that he grows more devoted to her as she proves she has the power (and the desire) to control him; he willingly accepts her power as he discovers it to be the equal of his own.  Thus, not only can she now intervene in what theretofore seemed an inexorable narrative of powerlessness, but she will come to dominate it, as she does Reynolds himself. 

To come away from Phantom Thread with the sense that Reynolds is simply an inescapable force, a black hole from which no one can escape, is to deny Alma the agency she clearly possesses.  She is drawn to Reynolds, but not simply as a moth to a flame: as the film unfolds, we see how she seeks to test this man who fascinates her, to find out what it is about him that makes him who he is, to discover what he writes on the labels that he works into his designs.  As Reynolds himself puts it: 'you can hide almost anything in the lining of a coat'.

Marc David Jacobs
freelance arts worker
1st February 2018

[1] The Complete Poems of C. Day Lewis, 1992, p xx.

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