I read somewhere on the internet that it would have been a shame if Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread “won” Best Picture, especially when measured up against other, quote, “quirkier” and “stranger” offerings like the eventually triumphant Shape of Water. A two-character drama set in the secluded lairs of the British bourgeoisie, the aesthetic proclivities and nominally-classical texture of Phantom Thread apparently encase it in the stifling halls of traditionalist, conservative cinema in this framework. This equation, of course, pits the film against its corollary, but also its diametrical opposite, or its positive mirror-image, in Shape of Water, a fellow warped mid-century love affair between unlikely companions. But the assumption that Shape is forward-thinking and Phantom Thread backward-moving is not only a cruel fate for the latter film, considering the beguiling ways in which Paul Thomas Anderson’s work plunges into the artifice and performance of desire and gender and discloses truth within. The comparison, not to mention Shape’s eventual win, also illuminates a much more significant problem with the status of debates around “progressive” and “regressive” cinema and their, in this case, imbrication upon a certain construction of, or false opposition between, a binary of “strange” and “traditional”.
To put it succinctly, Phantom Thread – wonderfully elusive, diaphanously heterogeneous, and astoundingly inconclusive without ever losing an immediate pungency – is the anti-Shape of Water. Compared to the showy, grubby, prestige-baiting progressivism of Shape of Water – a film which sacrifices any ounce of humanity, spontaneity, or genuine inquisitiveness in service of a veritable phalanx of superficially-plumbed progressive causes, all while caking itself in the thick, stuffy allure of faux-elegance – Phantom Thread is defiantly, genuinely weird. More importantly, it is generatively weird, strange in a way which works with and through social convention and psychological tensions rather than beyond or in spite of them.
In other words, Phantom Thread’s imagination is actually and legitimately a curiosity, an urge and a will to consider and inspect people rather than merely survey a selection of characters on their path through a plot. Phantom Thread thinks through them rather than merely unveiling them for a game of progressive-issue show-and-tell and sending them on their way. While Shape of Water encases its characters in the alternately ennobling and demonizing hyperbole of a fable, while also etching away even the faintest hint of a great fairy tale’s allegorical perversity, Phantom Thread embraces its mortal tensions and inner-demons, its quivers and sensations and murmurs of doubt, its need for flesh and its anxiety about that need. It also, partially, solidifies its characters under its camera eye, but only to investigate them, to expose them and unsettle their emotions and roil with their absurdly tormented tragedies, rather than simply to acknowledge them as types, a la Shape.
Thus, while the film initially seems to accentuate the all-devouring poise exhibited by Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), it merely feigns acquiescence to and infatuation with his lofty, exacting worldview so Anderson can smuggle in a cunning critique of his exhaustive, selective worldview. One of the premier dress-makers in post-war London, Woodcock may also be the most discriminating, not to mention the most hurtful. A paradoxically ascetic aesthete, Woodcock is a figure for whom refrain from any form of pleasure other than artistic mastery is the only viable principle for life. An ardent and violently consummate professional, any tremor of uncertainty, any whiff of external passion slipping out of his mono-directional gaze, is heresy for a man who domineers over his industry with a devotion that borders on the fanatical. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) covering the day-to-day logistics of the business to afford Mr. Woodcock maximum oversight of his hermetic craft, is, apparently at least, but one more woman elastically yielding before his inflexible, toxic masculinity immutably stretched over women’s bodies and his personal, palatial prison alike.
Initially, Woodcock’s newest romantic muse, a local waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps), appears to be another such victim, yet another in a long line of muses for whom romantic humanity is but a pretense for Woodcock’s dominant mastery to their mannequin-like submissiveness. Initially, the unmannered Alma merely bugs Woodcock, her unkempt ways evoking a zesty fish out of water, cast astray in the carefully-calibrated, not-a-hair-out-of-place halls of Woodcock’s egoistic echo-chamber. When she spreads her butter on her toast more forcefully than he cares to consider, the scraps of the overexcited sound design suggest at once comic filigrees and the throes of Woodcock’s mind in disarray, besieged by the thought of a woman genuinely exerting her capacity to move and sound in ways which he has not prescreened.
Alma, in other words, is introduced as a malignant invasion into what appears a benign, perfectly-composed, completely-functioning system healing all its wounds. But she soon mushrooms into a beacon of feminine humanity who slowly but assuredly blossoms from passive-violation to active, conscious rupture in Woodcock’s confidence, a subject whose violating agency transgresses the boundaries of the man’s worldview. Not, I might add, with the didactic inelegance of an issue-picture, but the elated, incisive wonder of a fleshy film, or a human woman, giggling at the rebellious glee they exhibit in their refusal of the status-quo.
While an audience-baiting trudge like Shape of Water lacquers itself in preening affectation to mask its astonishingly conservative core (indeed, it actually embodies Woodcock’s materialistic alienation from everyday life uncritically), Phantom Thread dances between moods, tones, and sensations. It approaches each moment multi-phonically as a collage of textures and feelings that cannot be solidified into one governing logic or fully sublimated to the framework of “argument”. Woodcock domineers over a near-cadaverous extraction of any life-affirming loose-ends, any extraordinary moments of unplanned humanity, in dogmatic pursuit of his monomaniacal art. Anderson is canny enough to not make the same mistake.
Thus, every scene is iridescent, evoking a simultaneity of coexisting possibilities, a lightly-fluctuating arrangement of molecules coloring within the social margins. While Phantom Thread undeniably admires aspects of Woodcock’s fastidious perfectionism – and indulges itself – the film’s intellectual terrain caresses the fabric of Woodcock’s dresses and imbibes in the unhurried pace of his demeanor to expose far coarser fabrics beneath the nominal placidity. Anderson’s camera peruses Woodcock’s personal ticks with a farcical curiosity, anatomizing him and his paralyzing daily routines to expose the incapacitating caliber of his clipped demeanor, refined to the point of monstrous purity. While the film may seem observational – scanning its characters from afar as if peering at them in a panoptic aquarium – it actually exposes the troubled but all-too-human dialectic of entrapment and liberation, of emotions, perceptions, and sensations raging internal and weaving a torrid tapestry beneath ostensibly pacific social interaction. Each supposedly stately scene teases a tantrum of barely-sublimated emotions vying for external expression.
Impurities always abound, in other words, and this is the film’s delightfully unstable conclusion, alive to friction and replete with agitation as it maintains a nigh-impossible balancing act between personal expression and collective compromise. Anderson’s film is often ecstatic to be around Woodcock, to participate in the sublime allure of creation along with him as his kindred spirit. But this euphoria is always shadowed only by the gnawing and nagging sensation that external sensation is a material transcendence conditioned on complicated ground-level power-plays. The film is practically cotton-candy barbed-wire, paradoxical in its intimate harshness, its brutal luxuriance, its undying sense for both the euphoric romance of creation and the ripples of deceit and oppression they conceal, not to mention the sublime and the ridiculous manifestations of human interaction and personal ecstasy.
Above all though, Anderson just anxiously luxuriates. Working as his own cinematographer for the first time, he lenses Phantom Thread with a hazy diffuseness and a soft, gauzy fascination that suggests a world glimpsed through the ether, a figment-land of time half-remembered that imprints every image with a fictitiousness suggesting the fragility of Woodcock’s façade of control. But it also evokes his passions, and Anderson’s passions, the ripples of fascination and artistic experimentation that both animate and are undermined by their authoritarian, repressive auras. The film is a veritable ode to textures and tones, to the creamy elegance of craftsmanship and the sensual pleasures of haptic feedback, chased by the crippling but also intoxicating awareness that the gossamer nature of these images, their very momentary quality, is what conditions their beauty.
But the quest to hold this beauty in place forever, to attain a perpetual eternity of creative excess, conditions a mighty comedown, not to mention a vicious withdrawal any time Woodcock is forced to acknowledge the outside world as a realm he must navigate rather than escape through creation. Every scene seems etched in still-life, but there’s a diaphanous, nervous, tragic beauty to the way their pristine perfection seems so easily primed to topple, so disturb-able, so ephemeral and illusory, in what amounts to Anderson’s ode to fleeting, transitory beauty being violently locked into place by a man who wishes they remain forever, as well as forever under the control of his tyrannically exacting aestheticism. The film waxes rhapsodic with its confectionary palate of vivid softness, its brittle elegance suggesting a temperature-controlled room perfectly coiffed and manicured to hide – and reveal – the tormented terrors and roving, roiling, rampaging passions which inspire and in turn as assaulted by the drive for perfection, by the need for control and mastery which both catalyzes the pull for inspiration and art and which can sometimes sabotage one’s willingness to truly ride with the cascading waves and irregular rhythms of life which grant art so much of its majesty and mystery to begin with.
There’s no simple or mono-directional triumph at the other end of Phantom Thread, its name evoking at once its haunting and its gossamer, albeit trancelike, qualities. Alma does not escape or win so much as recalibrate the texture of her relationship, thereby driving into stark awareness its fundamental fluidity and manipulability, the constructed nature of the social category of marriage which is, like all social structures, both constricting and generative to new arrangements, both strangling and adaptable. So while the monosyllabic Shape of Water knocks on as many doors as it can for a cover-all-bases strategy of issues-of-the-day, Phantom Thread peers through key-holes to expose far more complicated tensions in the dialectic of liberation and containment, the push-pull of emotional emancipation and conscription. It asks far nervier questions about the nature of opportunity, and true equality, especially when Alma and Reynolds resolve themselves to a heated, tortured push-pull that catalyzes them both to plunge into the depths of self-loathing and to search for the summit of interpersonal compassion, laced with more than a tremor of confusion about what the object of one’s desire truly is.
Eventually donning Gothic mordancy as a Halloween costume – just for fun, to add one more genre on the pile – the film riddles its astoundingly conditional cadences with jolts of batty uncertainty, exploring nooks and puncturing walls to evoke not so much an outpouring of emotion but to suggest the bursts of humanity which erect and are partially sublimated to the cramped, pristine illusion of uncontested masculinity and control. Woodcock’s perfectionist streak is stultifying, his lifestyle at once amorously idyllic and gruesomely choking. But, in this bracing image of startling intimacy, where oppression and escape merge so confusingly and on such unstable ground, two people are both freed by and bound to one another, much as Anderson is so clearly questioned by and exposed through the alcoves of his art. Alma refuses to be another doll in his preciously-manicured dollhouse, but the film does not valorize her by laundering its core with any faux righteousness or sanctifying reputability. Cutting through the ennobling embellishment of mid-century life, the pageantry of formalism, her wonderfully unsupervised liveliness exposes, and revels in, the cracks and bents of life, derailing Woodcock’s artistic manipulation even as she inspires him further.
The film’s feminist aims thus carry provocative undertows of uncertainty about what true freedom is, as well as how art is both parasitic leech and conduit to a kind of epiphanic self-realization. Thus is Alma’s truly human beauty, and her agency, to at once revolt for her own sake and to unlock greater, more cosmic truths as an unsettling, bedeviling molecule in Woodcock’s waterproof cloister of hermetic art. An unholy interruption of humanity, she rebukes his absolute, despotic masculinity. (Indeed, “despotic” is both apt and reductive in that it marks the selective surveillance and everyday household gazes which constructed post-war liberalism not as totalitarianism’s antithesis but its nominally more humane and accepting doppelganger). For this reason, Anderson is not Woodcock, although he obviously feigns being him. Woodcock is clearly a master in full command of his work, but his manicured, hyper-curated professionalism closes more emotional and psychic doors than it opens. It is testament to Anderson’s vision both that he opens doors we didn’t expect, and that he refuses, or acknowledges his inability to, open any one door completely.