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Old Clothes, New Europe: Phantom Thread’s Hidden Histories
David Hering , February 10th, 2018 12:40

In Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, David Hering detects an uneasy dialectic of Anglo-European relations beneath the film's sumptuous exterior (contains SPOILERS)

Some films are born topical, some achieve topicality, and others have topicality thrust upon them. Just as Pablo Larrain’s Jackie felt by virtue of its release date like a wake for the Obama administration, so Paul Thomas Anderson’s beguiling new film Phantom Thread seems to speak insistently to the tumultuous post-war history of England’s love-hate relationship with Europe. This is not to say that Phantom Thread is a film about Brexit. The film was well into pre-production at the time of the referendum, and anyhow it would be foolish to expect Anderson to make a film that was reducible to a straightforward analogy. However, it is indisputable that the story of an uneasy Anglo-European history lurks beneath the film’s sumptuous exterior.

In his earlier films (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia) Anderson pursued narratives that were primarily about connectivity – stories in which several events were unified, even if by chance. From Punch Drunk Love on, these have been largely abandoned in favour of a more cryptic strategy, where foundational events are always somewhere off the screen, unspoken or unseen – on this score, it’s not difficult to see why Anderson is a fan of Thomas Pynchon. Even in the thunderous There Will Be Blood, a straightforward reading of the film as battle of wills between religion and capital is complicated by Anderson’s tendency to subsume grandstanding social statements beneath complex, nuanced character portraits which seem to conceal as much as they reveal.

From its title on, Phantom Thread makes a virtue of this hiddenness. Designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) sews messages into the hems of his lavish dresses: in an early harbinger of his troubled personality, he tells his future companion, the young European Alma (Vicky Krieps) that he carries a lock of his late mother's hair woven into his jacket. Relatedly, concealed deep within the textures of this opulent film are hidden histories and geographies that speak to the uncertainty of post-war Europe, and the lives of those affected by the atrocities that preceded peacetime.

Like The Master, the film with which it shares strongest kinship, Phantom Thread is implicitly preoccupied with the profound alterations created in societies by the Second World War. In both films an ingénue of sorts, profoundly affected by the war, falls under the spell of a strong charismatic individual, setting the stage for an ideological sado-masochistic power struggle. However, while The Master is more direct about the conflict itself – Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is a GI struggling to adapt to post-war life – in Phantom Thread the war is almost completely effaced from the narrative. This is most dramatically enacted in the absence of virtually any detail of Alma’s pre-war life. We learn that she has a photograph of her mother, though her family is never otherwise mentioned, and we see her face change sharply when one of Woodcock’s clients is quizzed about her role in selling visas to Jews during the war. Later, she gnomically tells a visiting Belgian royal, with some steel in her voice, that “I live here” (King Leopold of Belgium was viewed in some quarters at the time – notably in the English press – as having capitulated to Nazi Germany). Are we to understand that she is a Jewish refugee? And are we to hear in her surname – ‘Elsen’ – an echo of that awful destination of so many European Jews during the Holocaust?

The introverted Woodcock, shuttered in his house and endlessly preoccupied with his own past, never asks Alma, onscreen at least, about her heritage. He makes only a single mention of the war when he describes some lace he ‘rescued’ from Antwerp – a reference that, given Alma’s implied past, could be described as profoundly insensitive. This offhand comment, and the generational difference between the two – Woodcock is at least thirty years Alma’s senior, and an age that could conceivably have prevented him from fighting in both world wars – suggests that he has not witnessed the horrors of wartime Europe first-hand. Later, as they argue over a dinner that Alma has cooked for him, the conversation takes a bizarre turn when Woodcock figuratively accuses Alma of being a secret agent in his house. “Where is your gun?” he demands repeatedly, as that phantom thread of wartime violence threatens to erupt into the world of the film for the first time. But Woodcock’s sense of war – all espionage and mystery – speaks of a profound immaturity or innocence of the reality of European conflict.

Woodcock’s dominance of and indifference to Alma is changed only when, in a sequence that strongly evokes European folklore, she deliberately poisons him with a mushroom she has picked in the woods. In this moment, Alma brings the cruelty that she has presumably witnessed in her homeland to bear on her indifferent English partner. Weakened, and having now been touched by death himself, Woodcock proposes. The balance of power now tips dramatically to Alma, and Woodcock is left struggling to keep up with her youthful desires (it’s testament to the extraordinary performances of both Day-Lewis and Krieps that this shift feels so natural). It’s no surprise, then, when the film moves to Europe, where during a disastrous honeymoon Woodcock becomes furious at his wife’s desire to go dancing. In a wonderfully scabrous sequence, Woodcock stalks the balcony of a New Year’s Eve party like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, trying desperately to find Alma in the throng of young bodies. As the ageing Englishman struggles, his young counterpart hurtles into the new year – and Europe’s future – with vitality and grace.

While this Alps-set sequence might lead the viewer to think that Anderson is heading towards a melodramatic Women in Love-style Gotterdammerung, the film ends instead with the same kind of chilly irresolution that characterised The Master. As Europe waxes, England’s – and Woodcock’s – empire wanes, and in a moment that can’t help but bring a pang of anxiety in our current economic situation, Woodcock’s richest clients and investors decide to move to other ‘houses’ (“There is an air of quiet death in this house”, he mutters over breakfast). The film’s climax – in which Alma poisons Woodcock again, this time with his consent – describes a marriage characterised by a masochistic dependency. As with many of the power struggles in Anderson’s films, one partner must be ‘up’ while the other is ‘down’, and it is overwhelmingly tempting to see in that bizarre Anglo-European relationship a hidden thread of the scepticism, dependency and nostalgia that characterise Britain’s post-war relationship with Europe, a scenario that at time of writing may finally be coming apart at the seams.

Phantom Thread, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is at UK cinemas now