I Just Want to Talk about Phantom Thread Today

A Q&A with the writer and critic Adam Nayman on Reynolds, Alma, and his Paul Thomas Anderson book, Masterworks.

I care more about the New Year’s Eve scene in Phantom Thread than any New Year’s Eve I’ve actually — begrudgingly, miserably — celebrated. (I do not like New Year’s Eve and have never enjoyed myself on this holiday.) After the persnickety couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) marries his muse/lover Alma (Vicky Krieps), their relationship reaches an impasse. They’ve always engaged in a battle of wills and volley of frustration, but it has all turned cold: he’s all frowns, furrowed brows, retorts, scowls. When the couple returns home from a holiday dinner with a particularly snobby client, Alma announces that it’s New Year’s Eve and she wants to go dancing. Reynolds keeps his eyes fixed on his sketchbook.

So Alma goes to this raucous New Year’s Eve costume party; not long after, her husband shows up looking for her. He stalks through the ballroom’s chaos and cacophony, getting mixed up in the balloons and the confetti and the inordinate number of people dressed as cowboys. Once he finds her, they both freeze. This is where their bliss has landed them: miserable, together but distant. The first time I saw this movie, I thought it would cut to black right there. It’s such an intense scene, charged with all their little disappointments, the way they want to love each other but can’t figure out how. He tugs on her arm, and she, shoulders slouched in disillusionment, allows herself to be taken back to their unhappy home. Something about this scene’s sadness and confusion, and the way the film’s final 20 minutes make a left turn to the deliciously mischievous, makes it a perfect New Year’s Eve movie in my mind: Who fucking knows what’s about to happen. December is for Nicki Mank-aj, The Family Stone, and talking about Phantom Thread.

In October, the critic and author Adam Nayman published Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks, a series of essays considering Anderson’s work, featuring interviews with his collaborators. I love any opportunity to talk about Phantom Thread and to think too much about its details. (Reynolds Woodcock is, regrettably, my rising sign.) Nayman and I spoke about the film.

Something that comes up frequently in your essay on Phantom Thread, and also in your interview with the costume designer Mark Bridges, is this idea that the House of Woodcock’s clothes feel sort of lifeless or stale. Bridges designed the fashions to be “on the way out” stylistically, which I found really interesting. What effect do you think that has on the narrative?
I think that Anderson’s always interested in transitions. Like, you think about the New Year’s party and Boogie Nights where “Hello 80s” becomes “Hell 80s,” or Magnolia as the Y2K movie where the rain of frogs don’t literally symbolize a new decade, but there’s certainly this feeling of before and after. [Phantom Thread] really seems like it’s at a hinge point not just in fashion, but the idea of everything about the House of Woodcock, and Reynolds, is kind of old and somewhat passé. And that’s why the movie’s New Year’s party is so powerful to me because that’s about time moving forward. And that’s part of what it is to live with another person and commitment and monogamy: it means you move at the same pace as at least another person, if not everybody else. So when Reynolds is up in the balcony, watching Alma down on the floor, dancing with everybody while they’re doing the countdown, this is really someone who I think has to choose between being left behind and moving forward. 

I think there’s a lot of professional anxiety for him because of this idea of chic, right? There’s a new aesthetic or a series of new aesthetics in England and elsewhere that are not what he does. Everything about [his clothing] is very old and very morbid. I think one of the great lines in the movie is when the girl says to him, “I want to be buried in one of your dresses,” which sounds like a pretty nice fan girl compliment, but it’s really creepy.

It’s disconcerting, too, because it feels like the only time in the first hour where we get to observe Reynolds with someone who’s a stranger to him.
Yeah, the first time that we see him interacting with someone new, and it’s also made perverse by the fact that it’s a very young woman. Mark Bridges, in the book, was very accommodating about trying to talk about the tricky thing fashion-wise with Phantom Thread. I know next to nothing about fashion, and I’m reminded of this every day by the wife and daughter. The tricky thing about “Are his dresses supposed to be good?” — I mean, I don’t know what we mean by the question of good — but I’ve always been interested in the possibility that his dresses are period-specific, that they’re intricate and they’re beautiful, that Bridges deserves his Oscar for designing them, but that they’re supposed to be bad, or certainly not functional. People can’t really wear them and be happy.

That’s interesting. What, then, do you make of his clients?

They’re, like, aristocracy and royalty. They’re patrons; they’re return customers. They’re going there for a little bit of pampering and seduction but also to emphasize the kind of economic power they hold over him and the House of Woodcock. You can use all the penis jokes or metaphors about “Woodcock,” but if it stays erect and stands, it’s because they pay for it.

But they have no place, which is what’s so interesting. The only man who has a place in the House of Woodcock is the guy who literally lives at the top. Otherwise, he’s surrounded by women all the time. And it makes me think of a movie like There Will Be Blood, where there’s just no women, there’s no female labor, there’s no female presence. There’s a couple of shots where you see wives and daughters at home, but otherwise it’s a completely homosocial movie. Phantom Thread is a movie with really only one significant man in it at all.Those scenes where he’s giving them their dresses are funny, and they’re also kind of sad, especially the Barbara Rose stuff.  

You point out in your essay that this movie is so much more about Alma than it is about Reynolds, and I think that’s correct. You had a great line to describe their dynamic: “She needs to control him so that she can be his loving wife.”
Well, I think that Vicky Krieps has said many times that in acting against Daniel Day-Lewis, there’s intimidation acting against that guy. I think that the imbalance in their celebrity and in their track record doesn’t just echo the original Rebecca with Olivier and Joan Fontaine, who was unknown, but it’s very much like the power dynamic between the two of them. To the extent that it’s a battle of wills or the sexes or whatever, she kind of wins. But yeah, in winning — I think I call it this in the book and this isn’t a real theory term or anything — it’s like this radical form of submission, or like subversive submission.

She’s like, I just kind of want to be Mrs. Woodcock, and you can still make the dresses and you can still run the house, and I’ll stand for you while you measure me… But he just can’t be 100 percent of himself all the time because she can’t take it. And neither can he! I love the idea of asserting power through these traditionally, almost mythically, erotic female forms of control, like mothering and food and care and whatever else. It’s power, but it’s also subservient. It definitely makes it hard to say that the film is feminist by any kind of contemporary perspective, but that’s because she’s a character who belongs to the post-war period.

How much of Reynolds’s fussiness and perfectionism do you think factor into Alma’s attraction to him?
I think a lot of it does. This film’s structure is very tricky because it feels like we start with Reynolds, we see his routine, and then she shows up and upends that routine. But really, she opens the film with her narration. That very fetishistic opening on Reynolds, it’s almost like this is how she sees him, the seductive qualities and the feminized qualities of this very meticulous way of putting himself together. But there are also other things about him: his clothes and his fast car and his confidence. I think that if the movie had asked us to be inside those things, complicit with those things, it would be a boring movie. I think that showing us those things from her point of view and showing both the attraction in them, and also what’s kind of suffocating about them, is what’s extraordinary. Especially from a filmmaker who’d never attempted anything like female subjectivity before. There’s interesting female performances in some of his other movies, but they’re never at the center of the narrative. I think Alma is quite convincing as a protagonist. 

This is sort of random, but when I was rewatching the movie to prepare, I realized how much the actor playing Dr. Hardy resembles Philip Seymour Hoffman. Particularly in that scene when we see who Alma has been speaking to in front of the fireplace — I was really struck by it.
Yeah, he does. And I love that you pointed that out. I think I’ve only ever heard like one or two other people mention that. It is weirdly copacetic with her talk in that scene about future lives, right? Reincarnation, which is the language of the cause, which of course given that The Master has scenes in England set in the early 1950s, you can almost imagine that the two movies are taking place down the road from each other. I mean, not really, but you know what I mean.

Reynolds has very clear ideas about death and ghosts and the afterlife, but how much do you think Alma adopts or reflects those ideas? I’m thinking specifically of her last monologue, where she sketches out how she wants her life to look: “I am older and I see things differently. I finally understand you. And I care for your dresses, keeping them from dust and ghosts and time.”
Isn’t that an interesting line? I love it.

It’s so romantic, but sort of warped and weird at the same time.
Romantic and warped and suggests some sort of transference. Alma is nothing if not practical, right? He’s the one who broods and isolates and internalizes and imagines his mother watching him. He tries to broach that with her during their first date and basically reveals what kind of mama’s boy he is. You don’t get a sense that their relationship is a merging of sensibilities. It’s more like she’s measuring him the way he will measure her for the dress. But by the end, it does kind of seem like she’s absorbed this more fantastical, or this more spiritual or superstitious, part of him. And maybe that’s partially what being in love is. 

But there’s also this interesting idea that if she’s willing to do this in future incarnations and lives and tend to him after he’s gone, that we’re looking at a sort of an obsession. It’s a love that’s a little…. I’m not going to say pathetic, but it’s kind of sad that she doesn’t really have control, or that the only control she has she’s exerted so that she can live inside this handsome prince fantasy. And it’s similarly very unclear to me and to everyone else I’ve ever talked to about this whether the baby and the baby carriage at the end is a prophecy, or a vision, or an actual flash forward. It’s such a strange image. 

And she doesn’t have any ambitions of her own to be a designer, or even to run the house. She makes one dress that’s mismatched and frumpy, but her dream is really to care for him. Not to build on his legacy, but just to keep it safe.
To care for the legacy. Why does she react so angrily to Barbara Rose talking about her marriage being built on sincerity, right? She’s almost just furious during that scene. It’s not just that she’s insulted that this slightly older woman is trashing her husband’s dresses and looking unwell in them. It really seems to be that she is kind of like, Oh God, I see myself here. Like, am I trying to marry for money? Am I trying to sneak into this house and get a foothold in, in lieu of actual true feelings? I think that the press conference about the wedding is a really fascinating scene and a lot of other people have used it to broach the question of if Alma is Jewish, if she’s a post-war refugee. It’s very explicitly a reference to World War II and the Holocaust, like a political dimension that the rest of the movie doesn’t open up, but it is there. 

That’s something that I hadn’t really considered so explicitly — the movie takes place almost exclusively in this house, and in his world. It’s hard to remember that there’s a world outside of Woodcock’s. In the beginning, we were talking about how this is a movie about transitions, but the political transitions are so much less pronounced.
Especially because, as an American, Anderson is so interested in people who impose their will through change. The Daniel Plainview character in There Will Be Blood is about changing the landscape. Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master is about changing people, or undoing original sin. [Anderson] likes these ambitious transformational figures. For Reynolds, his status and his privilege and his business had been built long before the movie started. Now, he’s sort of just trying to maintain, trying to hold stuff, more than he’s trying to build anything. That creates an interesting sympathy for him as someone who’s seeing what time the hands on the clock have come to. 

But it’s also, again, something I think he’s kind of making fun of. I know from seeing things you’ve said about the movie in the past, and how other people have talked about the film, the important thing to understand is that the movie is hilariously funny. Not that that is hugely up for debate now. I don’t think people deny this, but it can’t be said enough that it is an out-and-out comedy, which doesn’t mean it’s not serious, but it is funny, I think, almost all the time. 

The greatest example is how comically pouty Reynolds is when Alma makes him dinner. He’s wearing a blazer over his pajamas, he’s so mad. But I think that scene opens up so many more questions: as much as we’re watching these two characters, we’re also watching these two actors volley, which I think your interview with Vicky gets at in an interesting way.
We’re seeing two actors, we’re seeing a director who’s really matured. As I’ve had it explained to me, and as I’ve read about the making of the film, this is a hugely script-driven film for Anderson. But still, he kind of let them run away with this scene a bit. Some of that patterning of always getting in the last word and her trying to say the last thing, and then him firing back at her. I think you can see the moments where it’s not just the Reynolds character bullying Alma, it’s Daniel Day-Lewis hammering her with his talent and his stature and his diction. In this scene, she’s much more overtly insecure than he is, which has to do with class and wealth and love. But he’s acting like these are his things to give and take. 

I think a lot of guys, myself included, kind of watch this scene through their fingers, feeling like we’ve been that person, particularly the whole Why is this, why is intimacy such an imposition? Like, can’t you just, you know, let me be?

When he says, “Is this about asparagus?” and she says, “This isn’t about asparagus!” What a perceptive line. What are the arguments we have with our partners ever about? They’re never about the thing, right? They’re about what the thing represents or they’re about what the thing can be instrumentalized as, or weaponized. I love the writing there. It’s not writing I think he would have been capable of earlier in his career. 

I don’t know if you read the Mark Harris interview with David Fincher, on Mank, but Fincher had this idea about Pauline Kael that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Fincher says: “Pauline Kael knew a lot about watching movies. What Pauline Kael didn’t know about making movies could fill volumes, and I believe ultimately that to the detriment of cinema is the notion that everything is intentioned — this notion that the moviemaking process is like NASA.” I wonder how much of that you butt up against, or confront, when you’re spending this much time with a filmmaker’s work.
Isn’t it interesting that Fincher, whose reputation is so maniacal and managerial, would be flying the flag for spontaneity and invention, right? I think that what he says is a useful thing, not just ragging on Pauline Kael, but implying to some extent that in applying powers of perception to the finished product, critics impose all kinds of symmetry and intention and meaning that at best might be there, but unconscious. At worst, it’s more about the movies they want to see, or the books they’ve read or the experiences they’ve had than whatever’s been made. 

With Anderson, I mean, I don’t know. I convinced myself in writing that I’m finding patterns that are there, that I’m tying together phantom threads, I guess, in the work. I had one friend say to me about this book: “The problem with your book is that the movies aren’t nearly this good.” I thought that that was a weird thing to say. I’ve been thinking about it ever since they said it. I didn’t really ask what it meant, but I guess what it means is, like, you’re imposing meaning and coherence and power and potency that’s not there. I didn’t say to them what I thought, but what I’d say to you is that I don’t have the powers of creation to even describe a good movie, much less make one. If I’m able to make it seem like a movie is good, it’s probably because it really, really is.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.