Watching all of Paul Thomas Anderson: Phantom Thread
On Christmas this year my husband and I saw Phantom Thread on 70mm here in New York. It was a magical experience and has inspired us to rewatch, chronologically, all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature films. So, I’m here to invite you along for this journey. I won’t be recapping the stories, no exhaustive research, just trying to understand what they have in common, how they fit together and what I can learn from this dude. No real spoilers but this will probably be pretty boring if you haven’t see the movies.
As Phantom Thread traveled through the 2018 awards season I considered why I didn’t hold my breath for many wins. This is a beautiful film, superbly acted and flawlessly constructed, but profoundly weird. Too weird for this world. The movie’s existence itself seems to serve as an example of the theme so central to its narrative. This is a film about courage and caution and the frameworks we create in our lives to make it possible to be courageous on whatever scale it is that we work in. Anderson has clearly constructed for himself a milieu, a career, in which he has the courage to make such a strange and particular film. But he does so not without caution. We are cautioned in the previews and in the opening passages of the film itself that what is to come is not like other films.
The common narrative around courage is that it is something we have in our hearts, a bright internal light, maybe, that reminds us of our own resilience. Courage is organic within us, something we access with varying degrees of success throughout our lives, a resource to be tapped. What exists in Phantom Thread seems to be a different narrative about how courage exists in the world. Courage here is something you build for yourself. Courage is the collection of behaviours and objects we each amass that support us in the quest for the life that we want. Courage here is also mixed up deeply with caution. Being cautious in this world seems to be an important and highly valued tool in building courage.
In a series of key exchanges at the start of the film Countess Henrietta Harding (Gina McKee) is in the House of Woodcock, the recipient of the first full creation we see of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). This is a man we can tell is a fragile, exacting, genius-type. Our expectations are set about what this dress and this woman mean, in the grandest sense of the word.
Like so much of this film, history is a ghost we never meet. Phantom Thread lives in the moment. The glimpses we get of the past of these characters are in the context of a lived memory, a story told, a revery, the way we all engage with our past throughout our present days. It is in one of these moments when the Countess murmurs, about her new dress, one of the film’s most important lines:
“After all we’ve been through, I think it will give me courage.”
This line is an acknowledgement of a rich history; sad, dark. It sounds romantic but it is open to maybe represent a different kind of relationship that Reynolds might have had unlike the ones we see on screen. Either way, what she wants in this moment is courage to face the moment ahead, and she understands that this beautiful object and the meaning it carries are important in building that within her. No matter the past or the the challenge to come this dress is a powerful totem.
Cyril’s (Lesley Manville) courage runs deep, as does her caution. For her, Reynolds himself is the totem. Her brother’s talent, his precision, his fragility, are the objects that give her the strength necessary to build this empire. It is the empire and her own dedication to it, her love, that give her the strength to link her life so inextricably to this difficult man. In reality a woman at the time like Cyril, politically shrewd with a brilliant business mind, was unlikely to have such a position of power without her brother Reynolds. For her, he represents both metaphysical and empirical empowerment. She is strong, and she finds strength in him.
Her caution has two prongs. She is cautious about how he is handled, protective of him for all the reasons he gives her strength. She guards him and does her best to guard Alma (Vicky Krieps) from him. She protects their relationship because it seems to have a power over him that she sees is new and likely good. She is also cautious in a much more practical way. The moment that embodies the independence of her power and the autonomy of her caution is an interrupted private moment. She is alone in her office, presumably consumed with the business of keeping the House of Woodcock running, when Reynolds comes in to ask her to solve the problem of Alma. Her love, their love is an intrusion in his rituals. In this moment he is a child complaining to his mother or a low-level gangster asking the boss to dispose of a rival. He is asking for a shortcut and she has no patience for it. She guards her business from his impetuousness. She guards a woman who is in some ways a rival and in others a co-conspirator. She guards him, her brother, her benefactor, the talent she manages, from himself.
Reynolds, on the other hand, is a meteor. He is not cautious and he is not brave; his behavior shapes the world around him. His rituals and the objects he brings into his life; a teacup shaped like a bowl, a napkin, a parade of women with beautiful bodies or precise stitches, are what allow him his trajectory. Courage and caution require risk and Reynolds is barricaded from danger by the women who love him.
Alma leads with caution and it is transparent. She is careful and clear. We watch her build a life for herself. It isn’t a life she seems to have envisioned, it isn’t a goal in the way Cyril’s vision for herself is so clear. Alma takes each experience she has, holds it in her hands, turns it over, judges if it belongs in her journey. Every moment with Alma seems to have a thousand possible outcomes, an uncertainty she faces with courage guided by her own caution within the process. Her power is in her choices and in the freedom she feels to make them.
Courage is not something that festers within us, waiting for an opportunity to break free. Courage is not dormant. Courage must be built, it must be acquired, both over time and in a moment of need. Caution helps build courage in that it guides us to the rituals, the ideas and the physical totems that empower us to be brave.