Phantom Thread is Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, and I left the theater trying to figure out what to make of it. The story is simple: dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) meets a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), and they begin a relationship in which she becomes his new muse and must find her role in her new life while vying for his attention with Reynolds’ high-class clients and his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). Soon, Alma begins to assert herself as the primary woman in Reynolds’ life and eventually demonstrates the implications of that role to him and the audience. Phantom Thread is a beautiful movie but the great camerawork and outstanding performances hide layers of meaning based principally on the complicated relationship at the center of the movie.
Although the film is a romance, there are some horror and thriller elements that helped me comprehend what was happening. To understand some of these aspects of the film better, I recommend thinking about it in relation to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Psycho, as well as Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper.
Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)
Rebecca is a gothic romance, a movie about a giant old house and the people who haunt its hallways and reading rooms. One of those people is the new Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) who spends much of the movie trying to discover why her new husband, Maxim (Laurence Olivier) is so distant. For both Alma and Mrs. de Winter, their new worlds are embodied in the houses they move into. “Manderley” is the gothic mansion in Rebecca, replete with intimidating grounds to separate it from the rest of the world. Reynolds lives in “The House of Woodcock,” which doubles as his dressmaking studio. Both locations are extensions of their male inhabitants. Manderley is also haunted, though, by Rebecca’s influence: her monogram and decorations still mark the place where she lived much as she has continued to inhabit Maxim’s mind. The House of Woodcock is compartmentalized, a studio here, a kitchen there, and Reynolds’ bedroom a private domain not to be penetrated without extensive effort. In some ways, the story of both movies is the story of a woman trying to figure out a man by exploring his house, as creepy and unsettling as that can sometimes be.
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
Anderson borrows even more directly from this classic horror film than he does from Rebecca. Reynolds is no serial killer like Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), but both films are about looking, albeit of different kinds.
One of the most famous shots in Psycho is the extreme close-up profile as Norman Bates peers into the room he rented to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) for the night. The shot is completely black except for the hole emanating white light onto Norman’s eye as he looks at the undressing Marion. This shot indicates Norman’s desire to look at Marion without the danger of being seen. Anderson replicates this shot almost exactly. Again, the man (Reynolds) looks through a peephole at the woman (Alma) and sees her modeling one of his dresses during a show for his clients. Alma seems aware of his gaze, so she begins to smile and stride more confidently.
Both Psycho and Phantom Thread are about looking, but where Psycho asks us to become voyeurs alongside its villain, Phantom Thread asks us to consider the role looking plays in the development of a relationship. In the first half of the movie, which includes the peephole shot, Alma and Reynolds look at each other but never simultaneously. One only looks when the other looks away, or when they can’t be seen. Later, after a traumatic event, they begin actually to see each other. The final scene is predicated on reciprocal looking, understanding, and venturing forwards together.
Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)
Personal Shopper shares with Phantom Thread an understanding that clothes are portals into other lives. When Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is pressured by an unknown texter to put on a client’s sparkling outfits, she temporarily transforms from a forlorn woman mourning her twin’s death to a confident, high-class woman. This brief transcendence mirrors Maureen’s attempts, in Personal Shopper, to reach beyond our world in her capacity as a medium. For a person who is concerned about what happens to our personhood when we die, Maureen must also resist the temptation to dissolve her identity by wearing clothes that differ too much from who she is. Sometimes the most radical choice is in accepting the pain that comes with living rather than hiding from it in fashionable dresses.
Phantom Thread, too, examines the way that clothes change—or perhaps bring out hidden aspects of—the wearers. In the first date scene, Reynolds designs a new dress for Alma, a process that involves the intensely personal act of measuring her to determine the proper fit. Alma stands for it, even as Cyril enters the private room to take down the numbers that Reynolds rattles off to define Alma’s shape. The dresses Reynolds makes are uniformly gorgeous, but only because Alma has a self-possession that allows her to wear them confidently. If there is a danger in wearing fancy clothes in Phantom Thread, it isn’t that the clothes might change the person who wears them but rather that the person who wears them might not have the strength of character to fully inhabit them.
There are plenty of other movies that helped me understand what Anderson was doing in Phantom Thread, including his previous films and the divisive mother!, but these examples will start you down the path of getting inside the film. What movies helped you grasp Phantom Thread?
Alex Thompson is a writer and teacher and can be found on Facebook.