Phantom Thread's Exploration of Submission and Symbiosis in Love and Fashion
Phantom Thread's Exploration of Submission and Symbiosis in Love and Fashion
- Words Gunner Park
- Date January 15, 2018
Since its release, Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson's newest film shot in beautiful 35mm film, received critical acclaim as one of the best movies closing out 2017 (a wider, nationwide release hit theaters in January 2018). Daniel Day-Lewis makes his alleged final performance in cinema as the fictional Reynolds Woodcock—a self-destructive, narcissistic, and tortured couturier caught in the postwar revolution of 1950s London. Day-Lewis worked with Anderson in There Will Be Blood, earning his second Oscar for Best Actor. While Day-Lewis’ retirement announcement serves to elevate Anderson's ninth feature film into a swan song that reduces the film into a showcase for its leading man, Anderson is still able to tackle and critically examine the consequences of male dominance in a sphere dedicated entirely to women. Anderson's haunting narrative is anything but a simple characterization of designers and their muses.
To offer some brief context, Phantom Thread focuses on Reynolds Woodcock, an acclaimed couturier whose designs are sought after by royalty, aristocrats and debutants from all over Europe. He is fully detached from reality, only caring about the one thing his late mother taught him—dressmaking. As the sole male presence within his business, he is attended by an army of women (the petites mains, who don white lab coats and toil away over his garments), his sister Cyril Woodcock (played by Lesley Manville) who runs the business side of the operations, and his elite customer base—women who dream of wearing a Woodcock original, in turn, displaying their undying loyalty (one women even goes as far as to tell Woodcock she wishes to be buried in one of his dresses). Designers these days may flit in and out of their position at corporate-backed houses, but in the postwar era, the position was far more foundational. The man was the house. However, as coveted as he is, desire alone repels Woodcock. Haunted by the memory of his mother, his dealings with the opposite sex are brief and fraught.
This rockstar-like popularity and resulting isolation are similar to that of Charles James and Cristóbal Balenciaga, whose style and temperament are also cited to inspire Woodcock's characterization. Much of this is apparent upon first seeing Woodcock's ensemble. His custom-made George Cleverley shoes; his purple papal knee socks, Anderson & Sheppard suits and carefully maintained salt-and-pepper hair; as expected for Day-Lewis, the actor completely immersed himself in the style and air of the role, choosing his outfits himself in addition to studying pattern-making and cutting with a master tailor in New York City and researching fashion archives at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Woodcock’s refusal to tolerate anyone else opinions but his own is a nod to the uncompromising nature of James and Balenciaga. Both designers often spent weeks toiling away at a single dress with the sole intention of enhancing the beauty of the women who wore it. Cecil Beaton once said, "No one could cope with his [James] temperament for long." shares similar traits, perhaps to a far more exaggerated extent.
Although he is a designer, Woodcock is portrayed as a tortured genius, a man whose irrational behavior is enabled in lieu of his artistic ability. His refusal to tolerate anyone else's opinions on fabric, his collapse after the high stakes of a presentation—even his obsessive eating habits: loud chewing during breakfast interrupts his sketching process—it's a played out and favored theme in fashion films, often the reason why fashion documentaries exceed their fictionalized narrative counterparts in most aspects. Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times claims the film fails to create a realistic portrait of a designer for posterity. Day-Lewis portrays a mythologized version of an old stereotype, arguably resembling the erratic behavior of more contemporary designers like John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, and Alexander McQueen. Think back to McQueen's suicide in 2010, Galliano's self-destructive breakdown when he was fired from Christian Dior in 2011 after an anti-Semitic rant, and the implosion of Christophe Decarnin the same year.
When tackling historical fiction, filmmakers must decide how they want to balance accuracy and plot. Despite Woodcock's behavior appearing far more exaggerated, Anderson and Day-Lewis did an amazing job of translating the nuances of the fashion industry in the mid-20th century into a story that is compelling for a modern audience. The character of Reynolds Woodcock is still fairly loyal to the traditional 1950s couturier, and his turbulent behavior allows for a far more compelling story, especially when introducing the film's second protagonist.
Enter Alma, a waitress from the countryside whose natural beauty and complete lack of assertion attract Woodcock. Played by the somewhat passive, yet assured Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps, Alma provides Woodcock with a stroke of newfound energy and fresh inspiration. Her subtle figure serves to demonstrate how mid-century silhouettes could completely transform a body. "You are really aware of your body and how you are carrying yourself," Woodcock tells Alma when they first meet.
She serves as Woodcock's muse, lover and eventual caretaker. Alma's gradual transformation from naïve country girl to a partner capable of challenging Woodcock's behavior gives the fashion victim the opportunity to fight back. Case in point: Alma is introduced as another girl who longs for Woodcock's attention. The way he isolates himself from the people around him, only showing care for his trade, gives Woodcock a sort of desirability akin to that of Don Draper from Mad Men. Alma is extremely passive, allowing Woodcock to silence her whenever she irritates his work and even belittle her taste. Even though they are supposedly joined in courtship, their relationship comes down to how Alma looks in his clothes and how she fits into his uncompromising lifestyle.
Trapped in a painstaking and co-dependent relationship, Alma begins to slightly provoke Woodcock by challenging his fixed ideas. In one of the best scenes in the film, she attempts to treat him to dinner for his birthday, despite Cyril heavily advising against it. By Day-Lewis' choice, Woodcock wears a formal vest and tweed sports jacket over a pair of lilac pajama. The outfit is meant to signify a stunted effort—Alma throws Woodcock a surprise dinner party, and he wants to let her know that he is only half there. What follows is an increasing period of disobedience which includes loudly buttering and chewing her breakfast the morning after the attempted birthday dinner, a decision to leave Woodcock’s side on New Years Eve for a separate party and, eventually, something far more destructive.
After Alma's streak of disobedience, Woodcock begins to spiral. Women have always given him what he wanted—attention, fame, money, glory. Alma is the first woman to disobey his wishes, in turn reminding him of the haunting memory of his mother (whose second bridal gown he and his sister broke superstition to make as a child, and which he seems to believe may have cursed him). His turbulent behavior becomes more unpredictable, prompting Alma to retaliate even further.
This culminates in one of the biggest twists to hit the big screen this year. Alma eventually proves herself equal to Woodcock through a sadistic streak, earning his respect—or at least his submission (without giving it away, it has to do with mushrooms and some pretty odd role-playing). It turns out the tortured genius needs someone to torture him. He needs someone who can nurture him—but more importantly—someone to help him "relax" during his manic episodes.
Woodcock comes across more like a symbol rather than a man—a stand-in for fashion as a concept and repercussions that result when style trumps substance. While not ideal, this is not altogether a bad thing. When introducing Alma, Anderson directs the film as an exploration of the consequences of power dynamics in the fashion industry and the dangers of opulence over substance and well-being—all while simultaneously portraying a hauntingly realistic love story.
Phantom Thread is another style-centric film that uses breathtaking costumes and gorgeous scenery to hide lessons about the danger of allure. At the same time, the film allows its fashion victim to fight back and earn equal footing in the industry’s infamously rigid hierarchy. This is what differentiates "Phantom Thread" from films like The Devil Wears Prada and Funny Face. Despite both films featuring some sort of “revenge” moment, “Phantom Thread” goes a step further. The film is about genius, obsession and fashion, but it also provides a unique perspective on what goes into “stitching” two lives together (in the fashion industry or otherwise).
While some may consider the ending incomplete, it is a perfect metaphor for the cycle of the utterly devoted submissive and their obstinate dominant. Just as the fashion industry endlessly cycles through trends and designers—offering corrosive glamour as a means to help us conceal our insecurities—Woodcock and Alma fall into a rather sadistic pattern that obscures the destructive nature of their relationship—equal parts submissive and symbiotic.
As Mark Bridges, the film's Oscar-winning costume designer puts it, "You can see what characters are picking up on new trends and who is stuck in the past. As Phantom Thread wears on, it becomes clear Mr. Woodcock falls into the latter category." If Woodcock is stuck in the past, Alma is surely the voice for the future. The idea of the once-feeble protagonist triumphing over a greater power is gratifying. However, Alma will never be satisfied and neither will Woodcock. The two will bare each other in lieu of their grievances. The debate between old and new, stagnation and change, is repeatedly highlighted in Phantom Thread. It is a debate that plagues the fashion industry, but also one that we can apply to challenges of maintaining our own personal relationships. To put it concisely, Phantom Thread is perhaps the first fashion movie in years that successfully tackles the nuances of the power dynamics of the fashion industry in a way that is unique, yet oddly relatable well beyond the walls of any atelier.
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