Choosing “Phantom Thread” as a way to kill 2 hours of time while waiting for my friend, turned out to be the best choice I’ve made on a rainy Saturday. The movie was highly praised, thanks to the Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance and his remark of “the last performance before retirement”. The story was set in London’s couture world in 1954.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock a celebrated fashion designer, who lives and works in a tranquil London square. He yearns for a new muse, as any artist would constantly look for inspiration to create new masterpiece for his design career. He finds her, stumbling across the room as she tries to clean up a table left behind by guests in a hotel restaurant. He eyes her while she approaches him, ready to take his order. She is shy, the shyness of a girl first time being stared at by an attractive man. But her eyes are steady, unwavering and full of curiosity towards this man. She remembers his complicated breakfast order, as if it was a love poem dedicated only for her. She gives him a note, “For the hungry boy, my name is Alma”, an acceptance of his invitation for dinner together. And our story begins.
Three love arcs
The movie is divided into 3 arcs, following how Reynolds and Alma develop their relationship. It’s the relationship between an artist and his muse, then a man and the woman that makes him feel helpless without yet remains skeptical about her power onto him; and finally, a man and the hands that he trusts his life on, this time without fear and doubt.
In the beginning of their relationship, Alma stays in Reynolds’s house. Being his first-on-the-line model; she wears all of his most beautiful designs and showcases them with pride to his audiences. He finds the inspiration to create again, to thrive again as the man of the most desired couture house in London. Dresses after dresses, shows after shows, she’s there, gazing at him, yearning for him and yet, he is so far away in his own pedestal. Not until Alma shows him she understands fully how much he treasures those dresses, Reynolds accepts her as someone more than just his mortal muse. But it is not enough for Alma. She wants his heart, she wants his attention, she wants him fragile in front of her, bare it all to her and her eyes only. An understandable wish of a woman in love, the only thing that is different from normal, is she’s in love with an unlovable man.
The more you come to admire Reynolds’s talent in couture fashion world, the more you realize he is an insufferable perfectionist, a self-centered, demanding man, sometimes so childish it cannot be understood how it is the same gallant, respectable, and soft-speaking couture designer. One line of his can scar you forever, his death stare sends shiver down your spine, his impeccable manners can make you feel so little and inferior. Yet, for every Reynolds, there will be an Alma. She isn’t afraid of him, doesn’t turn sour by his condescending sneer. She remains as steady as a rock, and scheming as a fox.
My impression about Alma is a country girl, with charisma with high self-esteem, she wouldn’t stand for being humiliated and mistreated like how Reynolds treats her as his flesh clothes-hanger. Yet, I was surprised by her perseverance in sticking with Reynolds through his outburst of emotion. She wouldn’t stand for being mistreated, yes, and she wouldn’t hesitate to teach the man a lesson, to face the fact that he is unable to love her if he isn’t helplessly in need of her selfless care. Alma doesn’t show him once, but twice – how she has Reynolds in the palm of her hand. And Reynolds, although it is torturing him, sometimes, the way she puts butter on her bread, the sound she makes when she eats, he starts to try his best to hold it in, instead of just lashing his mean words as usual. He learns to put someone else first, instead of him always be the center of the world. It is a struggle inside him, but, it is also pure love, he has finally felt for the first time in his lonesome, confirmed bachelor life.
The battle of love
One of the most memorable scenes, the silent battle where Reynolds is completely destroyed by Alma, on his knee admitting defeat, is set in the kitchen. Alma has the upper hand this time, using the normal routine of cooking for Reynolds as weapon, she slowly pours the water for him, deliberately makes as much noise as possible, looks him dead in the eye, with a strange and hypnotizing order that he cannot refuse but obey.
[Spoiler Alert] The important thing happened in this scene is that Reynolds has suspected Alma put something in his food. He looks at her while she cooks, he can feel the tension surrounding her, her anger, her sadness, her intention and her determination. He can see it clearly, he understands now, why the last time he fell sick. He realizes that it is this woman, who brings upon him the misery, the pain and feeling of helplessness he has never before experienced. Yet, he cannot turn away from her. Something in his heart and mind, tells him there is no way out. Because for this woman, he is willing to go through that pain again. He accepts the ordeal that is about to happen, as he eats her poisoned food, his eyes still lock onto hers. Love is hard, and it is hurtful.
How do you love someone when they’re the least lovable?
When you first know them, they are beautiful, charismatic,… a person who does everything right, a person who is lively and cheerful and humourous, a person who laughs with you and makes your days brighter. A person who has been with you for years through good times and bad times.
Then time changes, you’ve changed, they’ve changed. Their words become intolerable and offending. Their actions become contradicting, their demands are unreasonable, and gradually you and them start to fall apart. Years together fade away, times going through hardship amount to nothing. I wonder, do the people in this situation ever stop to think and wonder if they really want it to be this way, and how did this happen?
For the past year, I wish I could say everything is okay. But it is not. In the back of the mind, I cannot quiet down the hard truth that a family of 29 years has been put to an eternal end. There is nothing much to be done, only facts to be accepted. There is only regrets, for the end delivered bad taste in my mouth. Sometimes I wonder, how my relatives, my cousins, think of the separation? What come across their minds, knowing it happened and none of me and my brother do anything about it? Are we bad children? Are we ungrateful, cruel and selfish people? Are we greedy for the houses, and do they think our viewpoints are affected and biased?
I simply don’t know. I wish I didn’t care.
Reynolds and Alma’s story ended happily. They continue walking together on this long, winding road called life, holding on to each other, knowing all the flaws and imperfections of each other. I wouldn’t say it is endurance, because there is a limitation in that. It is more acceptance – they choose to stay together, not because of the kids, not because of responsibilities nor the promise of marriage.
They accept each other as who they are, as who they will always be and not asking for more of that. They’re willing to compromise, they are willing to admit to their faults and wrongdoings, and move on from that. They’re willing to put their egos away, to take a step back and to work things out. Well, it is okay for us to dream, isn’t it?
More reviews for you
From Newyorker: The Claustrophobic Elegance of “Phantom Thread”
From Vanityfair: The Most Surprising Love Story of the Year
From The Guardian : A deftly spun yarn
And, the best and most scathing one-liners in this movie, which you can certainly use in everyday life.
My personal favorite: For when someone tests you: “Don’t pick a fight with me, you won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through and you’ll end up on the floor.”
[Note: This line is most effective if you sip tea immediately after using it.]