Phantom Thread is a glamorous, glorious, and gothic visual masterpiece set in 1950s America. Released almost two months before the third instalment of the self-proclaimed erotic series Fifty Shades, the former, though set in an older time, surpasses the latter in all aspects. One may wonder why I make this comparison, the fact of the matter is that these movies remain quite similar at their crux. Phantom Thread is the story of a handsome, successful, and controlling businessman who falls in love with an inexperienced woman of a lower social status; a nobody if you will. And anyone who has even the faintest movie of what the Fifty Shades trilogy entails, would agree that thematically, the trilogy appears to be quite similar. “Appears”, being the key word. The similarities between the movies end here.
Phantom Thread is the story of a toxic, passionate, highly volatile relationship between high-end designer Raymond Woodstock, and his muse, Alma, a waitress. Like many creative geniuses in fiction (and real life), Raymond thrives on precision, on control. Yet, Alma changes the balance in his life in more ways than one. Initially rather docile and over the moon about being Raymond’s inspiration, Alma quickly changes into a fiery, more passionate version of herself, a version that is a match, or perhaps more so, for Raymond. She earns the trust of Raymond’s sister, but her relationship with the pernickety couturier changes for the worse; a relationship that is fuelled by fights and disagreements. Alma is not one to take Raymond’s temper tantrums with a grain of salt. She asserts her stubbornness and independence in ways that are unexpected. Because for her, being Raymond’s muse is as important as having power over him in their personal relationship.
Conniving and yet almost vulnerably so, Alma is a force to be reckoned with. Actress Vicky Krieps’s as is astounding as Alma; she breathes life into her character, and seamlessly matches with Daniel Day Lewis’s spectacular finale as Raymond. It is perhaps this chemistry, the performance that makes Phantom Thread almost ethereal. But there is more, more in the dialogues, in the costumes, in the humour, sometimes subtly dark. Alma calls Raymond hungry, but in a way, she is the hungry one as well. Raymond craves power, yes, but he’s also hungry or sex, and there in, there in, comes Alma. Alma is hungry for power over Raymond. She wants to be his all, and she wants him to be hers to take. Surrendered to her. It is this sort of see-saw relationship, with each of the parties vying to be more powerful, that defines Phantom Thread.
Toxic relationships have been done before, hence my example of Fifty Shades of Grey, but with this, it’s different. Perhaps because each party is equally vicious, but perhaps, also because both parties are more or less equally passionate. Krieps is a force to be reckoned with as Alma, and it is she who makes us so much more sympathetic to Alma. The struggle for power in the relationship is sensuous, erotic even, but there’s a subtlety to it. It could have been “rich people fucking”, but Anderson makes it much more than that. There’s fashion, there’s drama, and there’s sex (not overtly so), and there’s violence. Phantom Thread is a visual spectacle, and could have remained just that, but it goes above and beyond to not be just that, and does a pretty good job at it.
I’m not saying everyone should make a movie about toxic relationships, but if you want to, I recommend taking a page out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s book.
- The actors' chemistry
- The spectacular costumes and cinematography
- Daniel Day Lewis
- Fairly predictable sometimes