The Quarantine Stream: 'Phantom Thread' is the Perfect New Year's Movie for a Cynical Year
(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Phantom Thread
Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max
The Pitch: In 1950s London, strong-willed waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) catches the eye of renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), who makes the young woman his new muse and lover. However the pair’s conflicting attitudes — Woodcock’s prickly perfectionism, curbed only by his chilly sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville), and Alma’s rebelliousness — put them at odds with each other, until their relationship becomes a toxic, and intoxicating, maelstrom.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: Paul Thomas Anderson‘s twisted Gothic romance is frequently misunderstood as a straightforward love story. To be fair, most Gothic romances are misread as this (they’re romance as the grotesque!), but that’s a whole other essay. I’m here to talk about the New Year’s Eve scene in Phantom Thread, which is the encapsulation of this film’s sad, cynical take on love, and why Anderson’s 2017 film is the perfect New Year’s movie.
Reynolds Woodcock and Alma have a rocky relationship right from the offset. There’s the inherent power imbalance between Woodcock and his muse, which the blissfully in love Alma is happy to play into at first: the beaming, compliant waif who is only so happy to please her domineering lover. When Alma arrives into Woodcock’s life, this seems like the lot she was given in life, as yet another young woman to be molded by her lover and terrorized by his cold, authoritative sister — Anderson’s homage to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and so many other Gothic romances. But where the heroines of those past Gothic romances are only passive agents in the grotesque events that take over their lives, Alma unexpectedly becomes part of the grotesque.
She pushes back, she refuses his demands, she’s willfull and stubborn and bratty. Alma and Woodcock become engaged in a battle of wills that turns toxic — quite literally. Their frustrated relationship appears to reach an impasse at the aforementioned New Year’s Eve party, which takes place after the couple returns home from a holiday dinner with a particularly snobby client. Alma announces that it’s New Year’s Eve and she wants to go dancing. Reynolds ignores her, eyes fixed on his sketchbook. So she leaves without a word to a rambunctious New Year’s Eve costume party, dancing amid the balloons and finery, which her husband watches from afar after silently following her. Wandering through the chaotic ballroom and its confetti and surprising number of cowboys, he sees her, and they both freeze. They’re finally together, in their misery. It’s a charged scene layered in all their disappointments with each other, their bitterness and misplaced love. Maybe they’re not good for each other, they realize as they stare deep into each other’s eyes. But he tugs on her arms and she slouches her shoulders, and they return together to their unhappy home.
What’s fascinating is that Phantom Thread could have ended there and been just as rich a movie, but Anderson chooses to evolve Woodcock and Alma’s tumultous romance into one of toxic, and intoxicating codependence. The way their relationship can only survive if she uses a woman’s most famous weapon — poison — to keep him at bay, and the way that he enjoys this power reversal, is infinitely fascinating, and sad, and twisted. It’s the only natural endpoint of that New Year’s Eve scene, in all its cynicism: the way to move forward for this pair is to not move at all.
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