The twenty best films of the decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
Dress You Up in My Love
Susannah Gruder on Phantom Thread
A thin veil of smoke seems to permeate nearly every frame of Phantom Thread, to the point where the film constantly resembles a kitchen after someone’s accidentally burned their breakfast. Paul Thomas Anderson took pains to achieve this murky texture, flooding each room with excessive amounts of “theatrical haze” so as to rescue the final product from feeling too polished, or, in his words, like “an episode of The Crown.” Posh society women are enveloped in a subtle fog as they float in and out of the exquisite Georgian townhouse in post–World War II London, where dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) lives and works, his obedient staff scurrying around delicately to ensure his guests’ needs are met. Reynolds soon opens his stately house—and sour heart—to a woman named Alma (Vicky Krieps), a beguiling aberration who stumbles her way into this refined world. Like smoke, she seeps into every surface, obscuring the otherwise clear-cut daily life that Reynolds and his domineering sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), have built. The film at first appears to be about the relationship between a male artist and his female muse—a premise some were eager to condemn as symptomatic of “toxic masculinity” when it was released in December 2017, in the relatively early and untamed stages of the post-Weinstein #MeToo era. The plot does take a literally toxic turn, but it’s far messier than expected, upending our assumptions and refusing to be pinned down into a readymade pattern.
Anderson’s characters unknowingly wade into this fog, initially trying to fight it before submitting to its nebulous zone of trickery and uncertainty. Prior to encountering Alma, a waitress at a hotel near his country house, he articulates that he’s suffering from an “unsettled feeling,” based on nothing in particular. “Just butterflies.” While Alma at first appears to be the antidote, it’s not long before it seems that the sensation was only a harbinger of the upheaval she would bring to his exceedingly ordered life. Alma is at once graceful and clumsy, as she trips adorably into the dining room and methodically takes Reynolds’s breakfast order. He over-enunciates his pleasures, full of the kinds of words people often read but have no idea how to properly pronounce: “rarebit,” “scones” (or “scohns,” as he says), “lapsang.” He’s laying out the bait, inviting her into his rarefied world, where every meal is taken seriously and perfection is rewarded. When she accurately remembers his order, he extends an invitation to dinner. But Alma is one step ahead, responding with a note she’d already written, “for the hungry boy.” It’s a sign that she speaks his language—albeit with an ambiguous accent: here, food and eroticism are intermixed and Freudian conflations of lover and mother abound.
If Alma gives early indications that she can fulfill Reynolds’s strange desires, he in turn proves that he’s able to “make her dreams come true.” She explains this to someone—it’s unclear who at first—as the film opens, and at interludes throughout. It eventually emerges that she’s speaking to the visiting Dr. Hardy (Brian Gleeson), one of several figures threatening to interfere with their perverse codependency, but in reality, she could be speaking to anyone. There’s a patronizing air to her monologue—she’s happy to elaborate on the nature of their relationship, but she doesn’t expect anyone on the outside to really understand. Reynolds and Alma operate on a different plane, one where you go home with someone on the first date, and move into their house on the second. (It’s not until much later, after she’s well established in the house, that we witness any sign of sexual activity between the two.) We don’t learn anything about Alma’s history before Reynolds, but it’s clear that life with him is an upgrade, to put it mildly. Was her family killed in the war? Is she Jewish? These questions go unanswered, with only the vaguest of hints scattered throughout. In one instance, the camera lingers on Alma’s openly disdainful expression during a press conference as she listens to the fiancé of one of Reynolds’s clients try to evade a question about selling visas to Jews during the war. Beyond the material riches she’s now experiencing, however—from custom gowns to lavish dinners—it’s not altogether apparent what Alma wants from Reynolds. Anderson doesn’t spell out her motivations, and it’s this reticence on the director’s part that makes the film so tricky, constantly evading our efforts to classify it in any way (romance? comedy? horror film? Christmas movie?) and shrouding itself in a thick layer of fog.
Reynolds, too, tries in vain to fit Alma into a mold—the seat his former lover occupied is still warm when she comes into the picture, and she has “the perfect shape,” as Cyril observes. “He likes a little belly.” But Alma proves shiftier than expected. Yes, the dress fits, but she turns it upside down and inside out. On their first date, as Reynolds and Alma sit across from one another by the fire in his country estate, the two are shot in medium close-up as she subtly interrogates him about his aversion to marriage. Alma leans far to the left, across the frame, off-kilter and closer to the fire. She’s found her best light, and her own way to fit into the picture.
Reynolds’s attraction to Alma borders on aversion—as he becomes familiar with her habits and ticks, he realizes that he may have signed on for a life of uncouth disruptions. He hates the noises she makes when she butters her toast, how she speaks her mind about a particular fabric she doesn’t like, how she interrupts him with tea when he’s working. Or does he? Reynolds may be obsessed with order and routine, but he shows signs of wanting to get a little messy himself—the way he dips his finger in Alma’s custard (without asking) on their first dinner outing, or his penchant for cream in his porridge, despite it being “a little bit naughty.” Anderson has spoken about how Reynolds is in many ways a stand-in for himself as a creator and workaholic. The director is known for his existential American epics, from Magnolia (1999) to Inherent Vice (2014), that, while achieving cult status, have been accused of trying to do “too much.” It’s no wonder that, as Anderson says, he really only slows down when he gets sick. He’s been open about the film’s inspiration: that in the past it’s been agreeable for his wife when he’s bedridden, and that it wouldn’t be hard for him to believe that she was poisoning him in an effort to keep him to herself.
Alma, unnerved by small signs that Reynolds’s attention may be drawn elsewhere, and inspired by past bouts of illness that have rendered him “tender” and “open,” arrives at this very solution, serving her beloved a carefully concocted potion of poisonous mushrooms. That Reynolds consents to, and ultimately eggs on, this behavior is the film’s most memorable twist, one that’s undoubtedly inspired ruminations about whether every relationship is infected by some element of Munchausen by proxy. Regardless of the ethics of her actions, what Alma brings to Reynolds’s world—and to the film—is a healthy dose of disruption. Krieps’s presence alone is distracting in its anonymity. “Who is she?” we wonder, as this relative newcomer goes head-to-head-to-head with intimidating stalwarts Day-Lewis and Manville. The messiness her character lends to the film is one of the things that separates it from other period romances, with the already iconic “asparagus” fight scene serving as the prime example. Alma decides to make Reynolds a surprise meal with said vegetable, but prepares it with butter, knowing he prefers oil and salt. The scene is rife with lines that feel out of place: “Are you a special agent sent here to ruin my evening, and possibly my entire life?” he asks. Krieps gets a laugh as she devolves into unintelligible grunts and spit-sounds, complaining about the mannered life he leads: “Everything is a game. Yes, mister. No, madam. Yes, uh... [mutters].” These off-the-cuff, largely improvised moments give the film its strange, at times productively anachronistic feel.
The revolt that Alma initiates can be read as Anderson’s response to foundational cinematic texts like Rebecca and Vertigo—what might have transpired if Madeleine Elster hadn’t let Scottie use clothing as a weapon to exert total control. Phantom Thread is what happens when the mannequin comes to life. It’s possible that Cyril was Reynolds’s first mannequin, having stepped in to help make his mother’s wedding gown when their nanny, “the evil Miss Blackwood,” refused—for fear of “the curse”: the one that says you’ll never marry, or marry poorly, if you touch a wedding dress. Cyril, an unmarried older woman living with her brother, may have inherited the curse, but she also found a way to assert her authority, becoming far more than a model for him. Alma eventually appears to break the curse by marrying Reynolds herself. When he proposes to her, she takes a long pause, considering, not merely consenting, as she does every time he asks her to do him a favor. “Yes,” she answers. “Will you marry me?”