Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of new movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry recommends influences on Phantom Thread and other movies to watch next.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, and from multiple places, but Paul Thomas Anderson tends to be simply linked to single sources with a lot of his movies. Boogie Nights is like Goodfellas set in the porn industry, Magnolia is reminiscent of Altman’s Short Cuts, Punch-Drunk Love stems somewhat from Altman’s Popeye, The Master is clearly based on the life of L. Ron Hubbard, and There Will Be Blood and Inherent Vice start out of course as actual adaptations, of Sinclair and Pynchon respectively.
Now, there’s the story about Phantom Thread, how its inception was with a personal experience of being sick and cared for by his wife, Maya Rudolph. “I remember seeing how much my wife was enjoying having me relatively helpless,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “Then I started thinking, wouldn’t it kind of … suit her to keep me this way, you know, from time to time?”
There’s much more to the origins and development of the movie, however. Some of the other sources of inspiration include other films, which are found in this week’s list of recommendations joined by a couple relevant documentaries and a short subject starring Phantom Thread‘s breakout lead actress.
Beau Brummel (1924)
The character of Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, is loosely based on a number of actual fashion designers, such as Charles Frederick Worth, Charles James, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Christian Dior, and Beau Brummell. Only the last of these has been the subject of a biopic (Balenciaga, McQueen, and Dior have been subjects of documentaries, though Balenciaga’s doesn’t seem to be available). In fact, Brummell has had a number of movies about his life.
Anderson only learned of Brummell when his regular music score composer, Jonny Greenwood, referenced the figure in a compliment to the filmmaker. “He said something sarcastic to the effect of, ‘Look at you, Beau Brummell’ … I had to look the name up. I wanted to know more.” He did so, and then also read about Barenciaga, as well (see the Phantom Thread press notes for specifics there). Soon enough, the idea came to make the character he was developing into a fashion designer. From a profile in GQ:
“You just gotta start listening to the airwaves a little bit.” On a trip to India, he saw a photo of the Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga in an airport. “That coincided with a conversation I had had a couple weeks before about Beau Brummell,” the 19th-century Englishman who is credited with inventing the modern men’s suit. “And I had had in my pocket a story between a man and a woman where the dynamic was about power—the power shift between a strong-willed man and a woman.”
In the 1924 silent feature Beau Brummel [sic], John Barrymore portrays the dandy fashion legend with Mary Astor as his love interest. It’s not really as much about Brummell’s career as it is a romantic drama. Based on an 1890 stage play, this wasn’t the first adaptation but it is the earliest that is easily seen — it’s in the public domain, even — and it too was remade in 1954 (more accurately titled Beau Brummell) with Stewart Granger in the title role and Elizabeth Taylor as his differently named leading lady. Either one is recommended for the purposes of learning fictionally about Brummell.
More directly related to the conception of Phantom Thread is Alfred Hitchcock’s classic romantic thriller based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier. It’s not clear in the back story, but Anderson may have watched Rebecca on Turner Classic Movies while he was sick and being cared for by his wife. In the GQ profile, Anderson explains that later he thought, “What if halfway through Rebecca, Joan Fontaine said, ‘You know, I’ve had enough of your shit?'”
The shit Fontaine is dealing with in the movie is the emotional abuse of her husband, played by Laurence Olivier, who clearly isn’t over his late wife, the titular Rebecca. The couple’s dynamic is similar to the one between Reynolds and new wife Alma (Vicky Krieps) in Phantom Thread, though the new movie involves a sister (Lesley Manville) for Woodcock rather than housekeeper or late wife. And, of course, Alma stops fully taking Reynolds’s shit and gets even in her special way.
Anderson also discussed the movie in an Entertainment Weekly interview:
“A lot of directors have tried and failed to make ‘Rebecca.’ I’m probably next in line, but it’s a different story. I’m a large aficionado of those large Gothic romance movies as the old masters might do them. What I like about those kinds of love stories is that they’re very suspenseful. A good dollop of suspense with a love story is a nice combination.”
For a great little piece on the link of superstition in both Phantom Thread and Rebecca, check out Kalyn Corrigan in Birth.Movies.Death. And for additional movies to watch, the other TCM staples Anderson has mentioned as seeing while sick or as going back to include The Story of Adele H., Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (which is also the movie that first inspired Krieps to be in movies), All About Eve, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Rear Window, and Suspicion.
I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)
Most of Phantom Thread takes place in the home of the Woodcocks, which is also their place of business. This insular setting evokes a number of Anderson’s favorite movies, including this feature by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Rebecca actually falls in with this bunch, too, and he cites that in a Q&A for Phantom Thread along with this movie. “Even a film that Daniel and I love, I Know Where I’m Going!, which has beautiful scenery but then they’re right back inside these tiny little rooms,” Anderson says. He and the cast discuss the experience of filming in confined spaces here:
The plot of I Know Where I’m Going! centers on a middle-class woman (Wendy Hiller) who is determined to rise in status by marrying a wealthy owner of a chemicals company, even if she doesn’t truly love him. But along the way to the wedding she meets and falls for another man — who of course isn’t rich. While Powell and Pressburger tend to be known best for films shot in beautiful Technicolor, this one had to be shot in black and white (Technicolor wasn’t available to them at the time because of the war) yet still looks amazing.
This film was also mentioned in an interview with Fandango’s Erik Davis as a movie to watch after you see Phantom Thread. He says Rebecca and Vertigo are the big ones. Then there are others I haven’t included in this post yet: “There’s a great movie called Cría Cuervos, a Spanish film that I would highly recommend getting into. A lot of it takes place in a house. Gaslight is good; Dragonwyck is really interesting … Anything with Joan Fontaine. The Constant Nymph is a really interesting film, too. I’ll stop there!” Also, the next entry.
The Passionate Friends (1949)
Two David Lean movies have been often cited in the mix of Anderson’s favorite films and specifically influences on Phantom Thread. One is the more famous Brief Encounter, and the other, referenced in more interviews lately, is the more obscure The Passionate Friends. Watch it and you’ll see the obvious source for the New Year’s Eve party. Anderson seems to evoke other moments from this particular Lean, as well.
And in an episode of The Director’s Cut podcast, being interviewed by filmmaker Rian Johnson, Anderson recognizes the influence of its score by Richard Addinsell. He says of the film:
“I was really obsessed with ‘Passionate Friends’… It’s a great film by David Lead that he made after ‘Brief Encounter’ that for whatever reason nobody seems to know about. Even like diehard aficionados of David Lean, I mention this to say ‘What are you talking about?’… It’s got a great score … That’s a kind of classic English romance movie and the score is big and overblown and that’s not really exactly what we wanted to do but were certainly like ‘Let’s grab some of that to put into this story.”
Plot-wise, The Passionate Friends also has a triangular dynamic, albeit one with a very different sort of trio. Based on one of the non-sci-fi novels of H.G. Wells, the movie focuses on the woman character (played by Ann Todd), who years ago had an extramarital affair with her true love (Trevor Howard). Like Reynolds and Alma, the married couple in The Passionate Friends start out their life together with a sort of understanding about their relationship. Here it’s that marriage isn’t for lovers. But of course the husband (Claude Rains) eventually falls romantically in love with his wife anyway.
The Maids (1975)
There’s a rather loose thread between this film and Anderson. It’s tied to Lars von Trier and Melancholia, for which Anderson had recommended Kirsten Dunst after Penelope Cruz — who’d wanted to work on something along the lines of The Maid — had to drop out. I got a bit of a von Trier vibe while watching Phantom Thread. And The Maids is sort of like if you combined von Trier with something like Gosford Park, which is the only Altman I’ve seen referenced as the obligatory link to Anderson’s latest — people dislike the fashion-focused Ready to Wear that much, I guess.
The Maids, based on the Jean Genet play and really just a film of one of its greatest stagings, is about two maids (Susannah York and Glenda Jackson) with a crazy relationship to each other and a crazy relationship to their employer (Vivien Merchant), whom they really dislike. When the master is away, the servicewomen take turns pretending to be her and participate in a sadomasochistic role play. Phantom Thread doesn’t tackle too much of the upstairs/downstairs stuff, but the relationship between Reynolds and Alma does initially have some of that class-difference tension, and the sadomasochism element is there but in a more subdued manner.
Crazy Love (2007)
Here is the first of two documentaries I recommend this week, neither of which is a token fashion designer biography (though Dior and I is a good one of those to start with). Crazy Love is about one of the most unbelievable couples of all time, Linda and Burt Pugach. If you think it’s nuts what Alma does to Reynolds for love in Phantom Thread, get this: Burt hired guys to throw lye at Linda’s face after she broke up with him (for having a wife and kids), because he didn’t want anyone else to have her, then he did 14 years for the crime, then she married him when he got out.
Typically I recommend this film on Valentine’s Day as a rare and most fascinating of all romance-focused documentaries. Just like the one in Anderson’s movie, the story here may be hard for some to consider truly romantic, though, especially any victims of physical or emotional or psychological abuse. Crazy Love has a totally different, much poppier feel, with its more quickly compelling and soundtrack-heavy storytelling. More akin to another Anderson movie, this film seems to owe a lot to Goodfellas. But it shares with Phantom Thread a story of true romance, which as I wrote in an old piece on this doc, “has to be unbelievable and involve questionable sanity … fantastic and unfamiliar and unhinged.”
Know Your Mushrooms (2008)
In the past year, we saw a number of movies involving mushrooms, including Phantom Thread. In each example, women used some variety of poisonous mushroom to harm a man, sometimes lethally and sometimes not. But even if not all of them proved deadly, there’s good reason for people to fear eating the wrong sort of fungi, and maybe also good reason for people to fear serving an ineffective type. Either way, knowing your mushrooms has become a very good idea.
This documentary from Ron Mann (Grass) is not entirely educational but it is truer to its title than it is a good story and is mainly recommended for what it will teach you about wild mushrooms. Shot mostly at the Telluride Mushroom Festival, it’s also at least half-focused on psychedelic types, in case you hope to avoid those or use them in an omelette to give your mark a potentially bad experience without killing him. The doc gets psychedelic itself at times, with the use of animation and some original songs by The Flaming Lips.
The Chambermaid (2014) and Pitter Patter Goes My Heart (2015)
Vicky Krieps is the breakout of Phantom Thread, and while it’s possible you’ve seen her in supporting roles in such movies as Hanna and Anonymous, you may have missed her few other starring roles. One to check out is The Chambermaid (aka The Chambermaid Lynn), in which she plays a hotel maid who goes through guests’ things and sometimes hides under the bed when they’re in the room. The German drama, which eventually leads Krieps’ character to becoming sexually involved with a dominatrix, was seen by Anderson via iTunes, and that’s partly what led to him casting the actress as Alma.
For a briefer appreciation of Krieps’s pre-Phantom Thread acting, there’s the award-winning short film Pitter Patter Goes My Heart. Here she plays a woman obsessed with an ex-boyfriend who has become a famous photographer. She manages to secretly get in the room with the guy during a shoot, and things go from awkward to terrible. Krieps is terrific at playing women with unhinged desires and violent romantic gestures. Her performance is not as strong here as it is in Phantom Thread, where she often overshadows Daniel Day-Lewis, but it certainly shows the promise that was fulfilled under the finer direction of Anderson. Watch the 20-minute film in full via Vimeo below.