'Phantom Thread' Is the Best Anti-Christmas Movie

The movie, which follows the romance between a fashion designer and his muse, is really about the struggles of the holiday season. Relatable!
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, United States
December 19, 2019, 12:00pm
screenshot-phantom-thread-daniel-day-lewis-christmas-illustration-redone
Screenshot via trailer; illustration by VICE staff

The way I see it, there are two ways to round out the end of the year. You can end it on a positive note, "WOOO!"-ing out 2019 in a tinsel-covered, glitter-dusted, eggnog-drunk, singing Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" in a subway flash mob blaze of glory. Or, you can accept the crushing weight of the past 11 months and [checks calendar] 19 days and feel the light flickering out of you like the link on a string of Christmas lights that someone stepped on with a glass-shattering crunch.

If you relate to the former, the next two weeks might be a pleasant blur of posi Christmas content, as you loop Elf over and over again like an unhinged Santa's helper who just downed a plate of spaghetti and candy. Congrats to you. If you and your seasonal affective disorder relate more to the latter experience, however, might I suggest welcoming a new addition to your Christmas movie canon: It's time to watch Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, the ultimate anti-Christmas movie.

There are indeed spoilers ahead, but the best Christmas movies are the ones you already know the plot to, and anyway, Phantom Thread is a movie in which the plot matters much less than the way the story unfolds.

Phantom Thread follows the controlling and highly particular fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he becomes entranced by Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who becomes his muse and then his lover and then eventually his caretaker, after Alma begins poisoning him with wild mushrooms. It's implied at the end of the film that this poisoning turns consensual, with Reynolds eating the tainted mushrooms in order for Alma to care for him.

This all might not scream "Christmas!" to you, especially if you're of the Elf school of sugar-high holiday positivity, but Phantom Thread is a fashion movie, it's arguably a food movie, and it's definitely a holiday movie. For one thing, Phantom Thread was released on December 25, 2017; it was intended to be watched at the holidays. It features Christmas and New Year's scenes, and while set in London, its godforsaken icy vibe feels not unlike late December in the American northeast.

Unlike Bad Santa and Black Christmas and, dammit, Die Hard, or whatever else we might think of when we say "anti-Christmas movie," Phantom Thread is not a middle finger to Santa or to the season. Instead, Phantom Thread is about succumbing to its struggles. Reynolds gives in to love and the guidance and presence of another; he succumbs to inspiration and to illness, just as we give in to the coldness of winter and the sadness of another year gone by.

Reynolds is indeed a Mood. And as he and Alma navigate the tangles of their shared life, it captures the stark nihilism we sometimes face, especially at the end of the year when we suddenly take stock of all our blessings and curses.

Giving is part of giving in, and Phantom Thread reveals itself to ultimately be about a very special gift. As the bossy Reynolds hands over control to Alma—as he sweats and hallucinates while feverish in bed—his subservience is a kind of gift he's giving her. If you're into that, it's kind of sweet, and thoughtful gifts are what the Christmas season is all about! With the daunting prospect of a new year ahead, who among us does not want to be poisoned mildly, and then lovingly cared for in bed?

If you, like Reynolds and myself, are fully over it right now, might I recommend watching Phantom Thread on Christmas morning? Make a nice, warm mushroom omelette while you're at it.