by Allison McVety
My father carried his mother through Yugoslavia
and Greece. Stitched into the lining of his coat
and against regulations, she kept him company
through the days he hid in back rooms and under stairs;
suckled him on nights huddled in churchyards,
with only the chatter of his pad and key. He folded her
into his wallet, where she was rubbed by the grub of pound
notes, discharge papers, a thank-you letter
from General Tito. Around her neck, in miniature,
her brother, on a row of cultured pearls: his face
crimped by the crease of leather. His eyes show no hint
of my mother, though he has her lips. He is his pre-gassed,
pre-shot self. And I am the daughter of cousins, a woman
with no children. I think of losing her in a crowd, slipping her
into someone’s jacket, an open bag, that sagging pocket
on the train, for her to live another life, our line travelling on.
Human sexuality is shaped by primal urges that take form early, embedding its drives inside us, stimulating our brain and our bodies when the moment strikes us. We all grow up hoping that our sexuality falls within the norm of what society will accept, what it wants, and what is legal. What we want and what we need are sometimes different things. Sometimes what we need is it something we have never discovered until we smack up against it, then it can become so all-consuming it threatens to destroy us. The love and heat and sex and “oneness” can consume us. We’re lucky if we find its truest fervency even once in a lifetime. We’re lucky if we can share it with another person so that it doesn’t have to live out its lonely days in stolen moments, or hidden solitude, locked in the isolation of the fantasy.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s beautiful, exceptional new film Phantom Thread is about finding that match. Unless you latch on to what the film is getting at it might leave you slightly at an arm’s length. Some have said that when you give birth to a child you “recognize” the face. You know them before you even meet them. The two leads in Phantom Thread “recognize” each other at first sight, even if it isn’t quite love yet.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays the aptly named Reynolds Woodcock, a famous and facetious dress designer for women. He dressed all of the royals. He takes his work so seriously that he can’t let anything distract him even for a minute. The sound of a spoon hitting the rim of a teacup will send him into a tantrum. He is tended to by his sister (a splendid Lesley Manville) who serves as his mother/wife/assistant/partner. Woodcock will allow various muses into his life for inspiration and presumably for the one thing his sister can’t give him: the occasional fuck. But those women come and go, and they never stay long because he grows bored of them and moves on to the next.
One day he meets Alma, Vicky Krieps, an awkward waitress who simply takes his order for breakfast. Their whole love story can be put down to the transaction of that one moment. It is simply that he’s hungry and she wants to feed him. It is what mothers do for their children. They feed them. That connection between them will eventually become what their unified love story was meant to be, she bringing to life that primal maternal attachment that Woodcock clearly misses and still needs.
Much of Phantom Thread is about the creation of elegant dresses and the daily lives of those who create them. Woodcock’s job is to make a dream come alive for a woman who may or may not be able to carry it off. The dress will make the moment. It will make any woman beautiful because he is just that good. In a way, this is not that far off of the metaphor for God that we sort of saw in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother. You can certainly read it that way but the core theme of the film is the odd love story at the center of it.
Every inch of this film is alive with color. It is among the few to awaken the senses in all ways. You can taste the tea. You can smell the wood. You can feel the soft silk against Vicky Krieps’ skin. In choosing to do his own camera work, Anderson has, for the first time, erased the interpretor between story and storyteller so that we are so close to it, almost too close, as to not even know there is a camera there. The intimacy he captures in doing this feels almost unprecedented, as Krieps said in the Q&A after the screening. Usually there is someone else behind the camera, she explained, but with the director there it was like his eye was doubled. And indeed, the trust a director builds with his actors is essential to the collaborative process. Here, Anderson is teasing out of them subtle, tender moments he himself wrote but perhaps might have a harder time trusting to give to a DP.
There are three people in the center of this. Two of them are in front of the camera and one is behind the camera and they are all playing the same instruments to create this unified sound. Phantom Thread, I think, is one of Anderson’s most personal films because it is as close as a film director can come to painting with his own camera.
Being mothered and mothering are two overwhelming needs we all carry around with us. Usually we are one or we are the other. Rarely do we find the exact right combination of gifts and needs. In Phantom Thread it takes Alma a long while to get Reynolds to the point of realization and it nearly kills him. They find something together that most people will never understand. It is just too weird. Few storytellers are even willing to go down that road but Paul Thomas Anderson does. He dives right into it, unafraid of judgment. He peels back the layers of pretense and get down to the primal, raw, significant truth of love.
The “phantom thread” is that deeper meaning hidden behind the seams, the tucks and hems, the neatly constructed costume that makes the perfect woman. If you look inside it you may unlock a secret. And so it goes with love.