Power of matriarchy (Phantom Thread movie review)

“Phantom Thread”, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, begins like a classic costume drama – we move back to 50’s. Reynolds Woodcock (amazing Daniel Day-Lewis) is a famous tailor, who – with a help of his sister Cyril (great Lesley Manville) runs the most important British fashion house. They make dresses for movie stars, royal families, and all of those who represent English elites. They play of words in the surname of the protagonist is not random – Anderson movie is not only a fascinating story about an great artist, but also – or above all – a frapping, ambiguous variation on Lacan’s and Jung’s psychoanalysis. It’s a tale about erotic repression and male autism, and – last but not least – about the power of matriarchy that is built on the symbolical castration of a man.

Woodcock is surrounded by women who inspire and accompany him, but he remains a bachelor, who didn’t really work through the trauma of his beloved mother’s death. His life is perfectly organised and there is place neither for spontaneous actions nor for emotional exultations. Everything changes when he meets Alma (outstanding Vicky Krieps). She is a waitress who seduces him with smile and some kind of impudence that – what’s important – is rather charming than annoying. She brings a breath of freshness into his world that is based on conventions and deprived of authenticity. Alma becomes Reynolds’s muse and lover and slowly turns order into a chaos.  What’s interesting, Anderson doesn’t show any acts/ sex scenes, but his movie emanates with erotic tension.

The protagonist is a king of London fashion, but privately – just like many other outstanding artists – he seems to be a rather unbearable man, whose egotism makes him blind for the needs of the others. He is irritable, moody, and full of absurd, ridiculous phobias and old-fashioned habits. Anderson constructs a figure of a very grotesque man, whose seriousness and inability to cool down bring to the entire movie elements of comedy. Woodcock is wearing the mask of a sociopath, but – what’s important – it’s rather a camouflage than an accurate reflection of his soul, mind, and heart. In this reality Alma plays a role of a trickster – of someone who destroys the existing order and deconstructs the rules. Her character has a subversive potential and a power of bursting the absurd. What’s interesting, her actions are also grotesque and caricature – as she was answering to absurd by multiplying it.

The relation between Reynolds and Alma is competitive. The woman doesn’t fit to the microcosm that the tailor has built – she is too arrogant, too saucy, and too independent, which his lover finds as much attracting as frustrating. They both desire and reject each other. It leads them to a very specific form of relationship that could be described as both – toxic and perverse. What’s important, the director doesn’t pick sides. The repulsive personality of Woodstock goes hand by hand with Alma’s drastic methods of making the protagonist love her. We observe an intense, unconventional game, in which none of players intends to let go, and realize that both opponents are equally authoritarian, cruel and intransigent. The dramaturgy of the movie is composed of subtle gestures and double-meaning dialogues. The action develops slowly, but the phantom of a catastrophe or – at least – of danger is constantly present. When the relation between Alma and Reynolds reaches a critical point, the movie that before seemed to be a classical narration about tough love turns into a metaphorical, hallucinating variation on the mechanisms of sexual domination and its ambiguous, fluid status.  “Phantom Tread” seems to be rooted in psychoanalysis, but – what’s important – it’s not a simple, obvious illustration of phenomena that were described by Lacan and Jung. On the contrary – Anderson’s movie is one of the most fascinating, unobvious and frapping love stories of all times. The director uses the poetics of both – absurd and grotesque, but at the same time his narration remains serious and deeply moving. His movie is a masterpiece on every possible level, which – obviously – wouldn’t be possible without great actors who embody all of tensions, secrets and ambiguities.