'Phantom Thread': Love and Compromise

This video essay examines the central relationship in 'Phantom Thread,' offering an insight into what makes Reynolds and Alma so fascinating to watch.

Phantom Thread
Focus Features

Love can be a tricky thing. Especially when you’re a dressmaker in 1950s London with some very specific hangups about the women in your life. A place that Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) finds himself in at the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Phantom Thread. Woodcock is stuck in an endless cycle of women he considers disposable, unable to break the curse passed onto to him by his mother.

Which is where Alma (Vicky Krieps) comes in, shaking him out of his endless cycle, his curse, and offering him a chance at love. But this doesn’t come easily, and the headstrong Alma has to fight Reynolds every step of the way until he finally gives up control. Compromising and giving himself over to another person, in a way that we suspect he’s never done before.

And here to explore that fascinating dynamic is video essayist MUST SEE FILMS, who offers a thoughtful analysis of the relationship between Reynolds and Alma:

The essay has a central idea: that the protagonist of Phantom Thread is love. In the story, love is embodied in Alma, with Reynolds acting as the antagonist. The film starts out with Reynolds stuck in his cycle, as highlighted by Johanna’s (Camilla Rutherford) presence in the House of Woodcock. Things begin to change, however, when he meets Alma. 

The dynamic at first is one that he controls, as he does everything else in his life. The film subtly conveys this in a series of small gestures in their early moments, culminating in the scene where he measures her for a dress. He has all the power here, something she is content with for the time being, though not for long. Not content with joining the list of Reynolds’ forgotten women, Alama begins to take action to assert herself as his equal, resisting his status quo.

The essay focuses on several key scenes that happen around the film’s midpoint. When Renolds first falls ill, he begins to experience a hallucination of his mother, the reason for his curse. She shares the frame with Alma for a moment, before Alma replaces her entirely. At this moment Renolds is beginning to let go, allowing his obsession with his mother’s curse to fade away somewhat, and giving control over to Alma. And the two scenes that sit either side of this one are even more telling.

Before that scene, Reynolds collapses at work. He’s been poisoned for the first time and the life he’s built up is beginning to crumble. He falls directly onto the wedding dress, the physical embodiment of his lifelong obsession, and brings it all crashing down.

And in the scene that follows the hallucination, Reynolds walks right past the dress, prioritizing Alma for the first time. He then proposes to her and, as the video brilliantly points out, the camera pushes in on the two of them, slowly pushing the dress out of the frame. By the time she says yes, Alma and Reynolds are all that remains in the frame, and the dress is nowhere to be seen. With this subtle camera movement, Anderson has told us that Reynolds has begun the process of letting go. Although he’s not completely there just yet.

One of the most fascinating things about the love story in Phantom Thread is the time the film takes to reveal the full scope of the relationship. Reynolds and Alma remain locked in this power struggle for the duration of the movie, and while they do begin to slowly break each other down, they don’t fully compromise until the film’s conclusion.

Whereas many films of this type would give this information up early on, perhaps at the end of the second act, Phantom Thread is all about the progression of this relationship. And because of this, the film leaves the viewer hanging until the very end, when Reynolds willingly eats the poisoned omelet and fully gives himself over to Alma. And then we cut to the final shot which, as the video also points out, shows Reynolds and Alma as equals, Reynolds no longer wearing the jacket with his mother’s hair in it.

Phantom Thread is a film open to many interpretations, about the characters themselves, how they affect each other, and the way in which the film portrays love. While the characters may be far away from what most viewers would consider relatable, their struggle and eventual compromise is a universal idea. And by telling this story through the lens of these incredibly specific characters, Phantom Thread is able to say something about the universal nature of love. After all, according to this essay, love is the protagonist of this story.

Sometimes knows what he's talking about.