Decoding the Strange Mysteries of 'Phantom Thread'
Curses and ghosts abound in Paul Thomas Anderson's latest masterpiece—and Daniel Day-Lewis, too.
By the time Daniel Day-Lewis finished shooting Phantom Thread, a funny feeling had come over him. “Before making the film, I didn’t know I was going to stop acting,” he told W Magazine. “I do know that Paul [Thomas Anderson] and I laughed a lot before we made the movie. And then we stopped laughing because we were both overwhelmed by a sense of sadness.” He hasn’t even seen the final cut of the film: “It was hard to live with. And still is.”
Given the amount of work he put into his role, one would think he’d want to share in Phantom Thread’s near-universal acclaim: As part of his preparation for the role of Reynolds Woodcock (the character of which he named himself), Day-Lewis learned to cut and sew a Balenciaga dress as part of an apprenticeship to the New York City Ballet’s costume designer. A film is usually a collaboration between a director and his crew, but for Phantom Thread Day-Lewis figuratively drew the carriage while Thomas Anderson eased the reins.
But weeks after announcing his retirement, Day-Lewis was in a painful motorcycle accident that nearly cost him his arm. He made an early exit at Phantom Thread’s NYC premiere, and at the Golden Globes he hovered like a sad-smiling shadow. Anyone who’s seen the film recognized the look drawn over his face: At its heart, Woodcock’s story is a fairy tale about the power of love warming even the most shriveled of hearts—a complicated hero wrestling with and besting the curse that bestows him with genius and existential dread. Given the toll some roles have taken on the actors who have performed them, it’s not entirely unfair to ask if the curse hovering over Phantom Thread’s plot came over the actor himself.
A note on curses—whether you believe they are mystical truths, self-fulfilling prophecies, or dogshit. My extremely fundamental definition comes from Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, which states that a curse is as such: “an unfair theft of strength. Whatever is attempted in the way of improving your position brings back less than the effort exerted.” Can’t succeed even when your aim is true? There might be a curse on you.
What is the curse, and where did it come from? The film’s first few minutes shows Woodcock after the successful debut of a new dress—but all he can talk about is the presence of death, looming over him. At his sister’s request, he takes a journey to his house in the country where he encounters Alma, the waitress who will become his model, muse, and eventually the mother of his child (that is, if we can trust the film’s final few moments, but more on that later). Throughout their honest attempts at courtship, they’re constantly thwarted by his thanatic restlessness; in the canvas of a wedding dress for a foreign princess, he sews the words “Never Cursed,” a blessing for her good fortune—and a longing after his own.
This angst is visible in Day-Lewis’s expressive features, so that when he and Alma first lock eyes, it’s as if the sudden psychic shift in the weight of his heavy heart moves the room, causing her to stumble. From the simple directions given in Anderson’s screenplay (“He looks at her. She looks at him.”), we know not whether the stagger—an exclamation point mark in a film of flowing gestures and punctilious edits—was staged, improvised, or accidental until we witness the breaking of what we might call the film’s sixth wall: The appearance of Woodcock’s mother’s ghost in a wide, static shot of his bedroom clues us into the fact that there’s indeed another plane of existence in Woodcock’s world—a land of the dead superimposed over that of the living, one that’s been having its way with him.
To any Paul Thomas Anderson fan, a ghost story might sound like unusual territory for the resolutely earthbound director, whose closest previous flirtation with the supernatural came in the form of Magnolia’s infamous storm of frogs. But taboos and superstitions are all too common in the world of the real-world fashion designers who inspired the character of Reynolds Woodcock. “I do think fashion people are naturally superstitious and definitely very spiritual, much more so than any other industry,” Kristin Knox, author of Alexander McQueen: Genius of a Generation, told the New York Post in 2011.
Beyond McQueen—who’s rumored to have secretly sewed the words “I am a cunt” into the canvas of a coat made for Prince Charles—there’s also Christian Dior, who had perhaps the most notorious superstitions in fashion and whose real-world death took place only two years after the events contained within Phantom Thread. There’s Charles James, the openly gay British courtier whose last words to paramedics included one of the best humblebrags of all time: “I am what is popularly regarded as the greatest couturier in the Western world,” he told paramedics, before dying relatively friendless and six months behind on rent; the French designer Paul Poiret once said to James, “I pass you my crown. Wear it well,” dying penniless a few years later.
Andy Warhol—whose documented frailty mirrors that of Woodcock at his most vulnerable—had a curious relationship with death; an emotional turn that has been said to be the impetus behind the birth of Pop Art as a form, he “gave up caring” after the sudden passing of a beloved cat he and his mother cared for early on in his career.
“To hear him tell it, the death-by-surgery of a female cat spayed him of tender feelings,” according to Andy Warhol: A Biography author Wayne Koestenbaum—but it also gave Warhol the ability to imagine “an afterlife in which Julia Warhol and their beloved kitties survive.” And Julia Warhol’s death was also a major traumatic event for the artist, to the point where he neither attended her funeral nor even admitted it took place. (He later told companions that his mother had simply gone shopping.) Warhol himself would later pass due to complications related to a botched operation.
These artisans who made an indelible mark on fashion each shared a canny connection to the afterlife—a relationship all creators share with the work that lives on long after they do. Perhaps this is the true fiber woven into Phantom Thread: an invisible line that stretches from our ancestors to our children’s children—a deeply Anderson-ian conceit—that goes beyond the constraints of the corporeal. “Sometimes I jump ahead in our life together and I see a time, near the end... I can predict the future... and everything is settled,” Alma says after the film’s theoretical curse has been broken, and the narrative timeline is broken. “I finally understand you—and I care for your dresses, keeping them from dust and ghosts and time.”
In conjuring Reynolds Woodcock, it’s possible that Daniel Day-Lewis grasped a strand from the tapestry of touches and tastes that makes Phantom Thread transcendent, affixing it to his own theoretical suit. In “Powers of Horror, an Essay on Abjection,” philosopher Julia Kristeva writes, “In psychoanalysis as in anthropology one commonly links the sacred and the establishment of the religious bond that it presupposes with sacrifice.” One doesn’t need to believe in superstition to witness the impact it can have on others—so what if Day-Lewis quit acting because he believed that pushing himself any further into character would have cost him his own life?
Anything could’ve ultimately led to Day-Lewis’s decision to retire from acting; on a practical level, it could be that both the acting world and the real world have lost their sparkle; it could be that the burden of negativity that comes with rejecting what comes naturally is weighing particularly heavy at this point in his journey; or it could just be dogshit, as Anderson himself hopes. But by quitting acting, Day-Lewis is challenging his mortality—his curse—by charting a quest to find meaning beyond life after death. If he does find it, we should all hope he’s as willing to share the secret as he was with his own soul in Phantom Thread.