Four Theories to Explain The Phantom Thread
Four Theories to Explain The Phantom Thread - because this movie is possibly the least obvious movie you will see this year. IMDB
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Gotta start with a disclaimer. The Phantom Thread is definitely not going to be for everyone. Not by a long shot. And actually, if you even have a hint that you might not dig it, I all but guarantee you that you won’t. Personally though, I went from disliking it, Lewis and his Woodcock character, to DISDAINING the lot of it, to loving it, to adoring it. I literally have never had a move grow and change and morph on me mid-viewing like The Phantom Thread did. So maybe you should take a peek at this trailer, and then decide if it’s your thing or not.

Daniel Day Lewis isn’t Your Average Bear

But before I dive into this particular movie, I have to reflect backwards a bit. Daniel Day Lewis is an amazing actor in my mind. But no single role of his will ever outstrip his larger than life role in Last of the Mohicans. I think I was in high school when that hit the theaters, and I’m pretty sure I snuck in to see it through the back door of the theater. And from beginning to end I was gob-smacked. I loved everything about that movie. So as I dive in and talk about this movie please understand, I am a pretty big fan-boy of Lewis’ work. And I was even more blown away by There Will Be Blood. PT Anderson partnered with Lewis in that movie, and he joined ranks with Lewis one last time to bring us The Phantom Thread, so you know something untoward is probably about to happen.

Quick Phantom Thread Walkthrough

I actually went to see this movie on a lark. I really didn’t know much about it. I knew it was supposedly about some fashion scion from the 50’s. I knew it was most likely Lewis’ last performance. And I knew that it was going to be melancholic at best. I hadn’t seen the trailer. I didn’t know anything about the plot beyond dresses would be involved. And as I’m a guy, (not to be sexist or anything) the thought of watching Daniel Day Lewis stitching and designing dresses all movie long seemed horrifying. But it was a slow movie week, so I relented.

The barebones of the story are simple enough. Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, an apparently well-to-do fashion expert that dresses movie stars, society’s elites, and royals. P. T. Anderson actually patterned his portrait of the fictional Woodcock after Cristóbal Balenciaga. A man that Christian Dior referred to as ‘the master of us all’, who was considered the pinnacle of global couture.

Woodcock is the unrelenting coxswain and genius for his own fashion-house. His extraordinarily close business partner is that of his sister, Cyril. The two work almost embarassingly close on almost every single detail, including when Reynolds is done with his latest found model. And as the movie starts they are letting the latest girl go. Woodcock dodges the controversy and heads out to the country. And in so doing he stumbles upon a waitress that was to be his latest obsession, Alma. Soon she is whisked away into a world of riches, sumptuous surroundings and daily sessions with the stern and dogmatic Woodcock. The honeymoon is quickly over though, and we begin to learn just how awful a human being Woodcock really is.

Reynolds and Alma phase in and out of cycle with one another so quickly and so regularly that we think that they may very well be the perfect poster-child for the definition of passive aggressive relationships everywhere. Soon Alma learns her place, and does her absolute best to fall in line. But over time Alma finds her own ways to gain her own respect and power within this high stakes relationship. And soon she realizes that after a show Woodcock is so depleted that he is in desperate need for her assistance and help. Realizing just how much she desires this reimagining of her relationship with Woodcock that she poisons Woodcock with poisonous mushrooms in the meal she makes for him.

The poisoning is extreme and so intense that Reynolds accidentally ruins the wedding dress for a Royal and witnesses his mother’s ghost in his room. But Alma so enjoys babying him after the fact that she thinks maybe she could just do it again. And as the movie comes to its climax she offers to make Woodcock breakfast, and poisons his omelette. But Reynolds guesses what Alma’s game is and what she is up to. And in a bizarre twist, Alma explains what it is that she was doing and just how badly she needed him to be weak and thus the poisoning attempt. Which, basically blows Woodcock’s mind… and he ultimately agrees… and eats the omelette. The two get married and they find a new symbiosis of shifting equivalences and a shifting circling of detentes and co-dependencies.

But What Is The Phantom Thread About?

Theory 1 – Maybe It’s About Power & Creative Control

As the movie started, I assumed that the movie was 100% about the demanding nature necessary to truly create and to be successful in the art world. That it was impossible to be reasonable and to also be a perfectionist. That families and demands of one’s time are completely unacceptable for those that live in the upper reaches of the castles in the clouds. That it was impossible to truly be happy while also being an artist. And that there was nothing worse than individuals that interrupt the pursuit of excellence. Which, I think is rubbish – and that Woodcock was being a complete ass, for utterly no reason whatsoever. So personally? I don’t think that theory #1 is even close to on target.

Theory 2 – Is It About Ghosts and Curses?

First things first, we have to begin this theory with the title of the movie. What does it even mean? The Phantom Thread? Phantoms, ghosts, curses? Then we have to discuss those secret messages that Woodcock was sewing into his dresses. For example, we see Alma find a message Woodcock had sewn into the hem of a wedding gown commissioned by a princess. The message, a blessing, was “Never Cursed”. And then there is the one last detail we have to detail out to complete our evidence, the apparition visitation of Woodcock’s mother in his room. Could it just be the mushrooms talking? Sure, but it could also be a single thread running through this entire movie, a phantom one. No? If you buy into this theory, then you believe that there is a magical quality to this movie. That it is a movie about curses and blessings. It’s a movie about conjurings and about magic, its a movie about secret talismans. No? Be careful, I might curse you by sneaking in a secret message somewhere in this post! hahah. (Don’t think I would, I have already, you just haven’t found it! First to find my message gets a Starbucks coffee on me.)

Theory 3 – Toxic Masculinity and an Example of #MeToo

Tossing aside the artistic angle entirely, I began wondering if the timing of the Phantom Thread was just too perfect. Was the movie actually a commentary on the late breaking #MeToo movement? An indictment of men in society, and their embarrassing will to power? Could it be a polemic against how men have been given status and position as an assumption of skill? Maybe it was a discussion of how women are regularly subjigated and belittled in a million different ways that add up to a death via a billion different paper-cuts? We know for a fact that Alma is all but sadistically humiliated and belittled in front of not only the family but also the larger fashion world with such regularity that one wonders if it was something of a sport for Woodcock. Maybe this is simply a lense to show us just how horrible we men can be to other women and co-workers in spite of their capabilities or skills. (Unfortunately, this theory is way more on target than I’d like it to be.)

Theory 4 – Physical Power And Sickness As Control

But as the movie progressed, and the relationships changed, and the pendulum shifted, I realized it wasn’t about that at all. I happened to notice an interview with Rolling Stone and Anderson a couple of days ago that actually helped me turn this movie on its head in my understanding of what was actually happening. In said interview, Anderson spoke of being sick once, and how lovingly his wife cared for him. And during his convalescence he said he had this thought, “Oh, she is looking at me with such care and tenderness… wouldn’t it suit her to keep me sick in this state?” And just like that, Anderson realized that there was a physical component to the shifting tides of power in a long running relationship. That it isn’t exclusively mental, but also physical. And out of that, came the muse of an idea that sprung forth this movie.

What Is Your Idea About The Phantom Thread?

I don’t know. Could it be that the movie investigates the complexity of relationships and the different types and kinds of weddings of the mind that are possible? Maybe we are seeing Alma stand her ground and give Woodcock exactly what he was hoping for ultimately, exactly what he thought he’d never find. Which was someone that knew when to push back and when too let go. A relationship that allowed him the need and the desire to be supported and also controlling of simultaneously.

I don’t know – what did you think of the movie? Did you see any sense to it at all? I’m guessing that there are going to be a lot of guys venting about how utterly stupid this movie was. How incomprehensible. And how meaningless. But I would be very careful, my fellow brethren, as to how you respond! hahaha. Sure, this movie isn’t for everyone. And yes, there is a ton of mental gameplay here. Almost a Dangerous Liaison type of a mental gymnastics sort of a movie. Actually reminds me of My Cousin Rachel in some respects. (I mean, the mushrooms being the most obvious comparison, but mentally too.) And that is why I enjoyed it so much, and mainly because it wasn’t about couture at all. It wasn’t about dresses. It was about something completely other. But what other? What do YOU think it was about?  

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13 Responses

  1. P.L. Brewer

    I think that I came up with all but one of your own theories about “Phantom Thread,” but also considered a couple of others. Note that Alma and Woodcock actually exchanged places in the sense that she became the controller and he became the controlled. Though poisoning him, did she actually learn to enjoy controlling Woodcock, and thus learn to perhaps understand why he enjoyed it?

    You alluded to the phantom mother appearing to him while Woodcock was so sick, but I think this may be a different slant. Did he want to eat more poisonous truffles in order to die so he could be with his long-deceased mother with whom he was obsessed throughout his life? I can see no other reason to use “phantom” in the movie title.

    Just my random thoughts on a very thought-provoking movie (not to mention an excellent one). Hope Day-Lewis changes his mind about eminent retirement, wins the best-actor Oscar, and continues to make more movies. Don’t know how, but he only gets better!

    Senior fan in Knoxville, TN

    • Taylor Holmes

      Hey P.L.,
      I like your idea about his desire to be closer to his mother, or reinvoke her. If he allows himself to be regularly poisoned, instead of dying to be close to her, he can just summon her at will. Hadn’t thought about that angle. Interesting.

      Thanks for the comment,

  2. Lana Robertson

    After finishing watching Phantom thread, I went immediately online to hurriedly find some clearer analysis of what I had just watched. No luck. I might be a little closer, but not securely.
    I have another perception-of which I would like opinion. Perhaps there are several ghosts in the story. Beside the hints of mother’s continual influence and the hidden messages sewn in the fabric of his designs, did Alma create Woodcock as the ghost? It was she who made him ill, and could she have finally killed him, and now in her imagination reveals the story in interview: she has a baby, shares his family, his fortune, his talent, even taking over his business and is now treated equally as respected professional? Was her interview during and nearing the end story and a way to keep Woodcock near her psychologically and herself in power? By keeping Woodcock in the background, or dead, one or the other, she now maintains control. She is no longer the “little woman,” no longer subservient, but master and creator in her own right. By his death or his perpetrated dependence, she is no longer the puppet but the puppeteer. An added strangeness to this is that Woodcock seems to accept this idea, and now dotes on his new role of dependency.
    Complex indeed. I don’t think I like the confusion, but I think I might be correct…?

  3. StephenW

    Is this not a “typical” sado-masochistic relationship? In such a true relationship the exchange of power is given when each realises the complementary need for the other and the dominant can exchange the power in his/her hands for the submission he/she craves in his/her self in perfect symmetry.
    (By the way, he knew very well he was eating the poisoned omelette towards the end. The recognition of each’s relationship with the other is consummated.)

  4. Lynda

    How about the idea that fate is the phantom thread? In her interview, at the end, she explains that she and Reynolds are fated to be together, in this world, in the next, in the last. It’s an invisible thread that binds them together. Albeit strange, their relationship finds a balance that works for them in this life. The ghosts and the secrets are “simply” the unspoken complexities which bind us one to another. Maybe?

  5. Doris J. Hunter

    Absolutely one of the best performances in Hollywood, Daniel Day Lewis. He owns Hollywood! The movie was about dominance and power. Strong willed people attempting to live together seldom works and someone has to give in. Very clever production with the constant eye contact by his sister, Cyril who was magnificently portrayed and Alma(Meryl Streep look-a-like!) was superb! I could not take my eyes away from the screen. I do not think it was too complicated as everything was given to you in the script. They held nothing back. His need to be babied and consoled was surprising and that is where the struggle was won.

  6. Carla

    the reality exceeds fiction. This is the typical story of a narcissist personality desorder guy and his co-dependent girl who wants to take revenge on her abuser but at the same time “love”him.
    In the relationship she created Cognitive Dissonance, Stockholm Syndrom and others.
    Just for understand more the film check : malignant NPD

  7. kaduzy

    This piece is so full of every kind of error, starting with basic grammar and continuing on to key plot details. You couldn’t even get the title right.

  8. Barb

    Here is the KISS answer:

    Woodcock is simply Bi polar with a little OCD thrown in for more fun. They both knew he was a jerk but he could not control his mental illness.

    Alma was controlling his disorder with the poisonous mushrooms. They both enjoyed the outcome once she found the correct dosage.

    We use Lithium and a plethora of other meds for that now a days.

  9. Jade

    I am intrigued by all of these thoughts by others. I too jumped online to get some perspective on the ending, because it seemed that if you weren’t paying close enough attention, you’d miss something very key to understanding everything. Sure, the relationship is simple, but how the story is told leaves questions. Why is she talking to someone as if being interrogated? I kept getting the feeling that something bad was going to happen. The fact that it seemed to end like a present wrapped in a pretty ribbon made me question if this ending wasn’t her fantasy, and not reality. She explains in the beginning that she gave herself completely to him, but the moment when he speaks so terribly of her to Cyril or threatens to throw her out, you have to wonder if she is actually giving him a lethal dosage of poisonous mushrooms, and the person to whom she is speaking is some kind of investigator. Also, she speaks of his possible death rather frivolously, as though it wouldn’t matter if he died, because she would find him again and again in the next life, because they were forever entangled. Also, in the ending montage, we see them dancing on the dance floor of the NYE ballroom exactly as it was when she went “dancing” without him, wearing the cocktail dress that she disliked in the earlier part of their relationship when he told her she had no taste…as if it eclipsed time, and she was dreaming of the man she really wished he was; the kind of man that would take her dancing on NYE without question. She selfishly wants him to be what she wants him to be, and he is so set in his ways, it seems highly unlikely that willful poison would somehow change him. Also, we see her doing his work at the end as though he wasn’t there at all, making the implication that she carries on after his death. To me, the end is a dream…Alma’s dream. If a thimble full of mushrooms in his tea made him so sick, what would a full bite of the mushroom do? She wanted to punish him for hurting her, and she probably confessed to someone, but I doubt Reynolds was a willing victim. She just imagined he was. She strikes me as someone who suffers from Muchheusens by proxy (so?). She gets great joy out of caring for him, ingratiating herself to him, gaining the admiration and respect of others as a caregiver, all the while loving him to death. Just my take on it.

  10. Tamie Callahan

    Is it possible that even though the mushrooms made him sick, they also made him feel alive? This might explain his joy at being well after he was so sick. So joyful that he asked Alma to marry him? The ending made me sad because it inferred to me that on some level we need to poison our relationships to get out partners to appreciate the healthy times, particularly if our partner has a dark personality (or was it depression?). It’s a cynical point of view that assumes one needs bad to have good. I loved that the story was told from her point of view to the reporter. She looked so joyful and serene as she told it. Like she solved a puzzle and couldn’t wait to explain her strategy. But did she? BTW The acting was incredible. The leads are masters at their craft. I was disturbed by the ending but, as the reviewer first said, my opinion has morphed as time goes on.

  11. Clippidy-cloppidy

    Guys, I don’t think there is any deep meaning in this movie in terms of any ghosts or fantasies. I’d suggest you stop digging… I think it’s a movie about an unhealthy relationship of two people who are unable to break out of it due to their psychological deficiencies. It’s a study of that strange power that keeps these two people together despite their struggles with each other – a phantom thread indeed. I am astonished of how real this portrayal is because I ACTUALLY LIVE this relationship every day (no poisoning here, though!). It was fascinating to see extactly what I went, am still going through, on screen and I was so hoping to find answers to questions that are constantly on my mind, but… in vein.
    Did she really love him? Did she really care for him? Or did she just love a certain image of herself? Where they happy with each other? Why didn’t she leave him? For what reason did she stay with him (other than materialistic ones)? Was his life better before Almas arrival or after? And who decides that? Alma? Cyril? The audience? Would Reynolds be able to answer this question himself?
    And what the hell am I supposed to do?!?!?


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