In Louise Glück’s poem “The Garden,” we are shown an image of tenderness:
Look at her, touching his cheek
to make a truce, her fingers
cool with spring rain;
in thin grass, bursts of purple crocus—
even here, even at the beginning of love
her hand leaving his face makes
an image of departure.
The first half presents a simple enough image—a woman touching her lover’s cheek—and yet the following stanza complicates the image and turns it into a moment of loss—“an image of departure.” We become aware of the image of tenderness as a transient moment—its tenderness stitched through with the inevitability of its ending. Yet it is images like this one that love is built on—imagined or real, long gone or just present. They stick in our minds like amber, crystallizing impulse into intent, glance into attention. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017) is a film about how these moments are the foundation of love—and about the lengths we will go to in order to fix them in place.
We find these moments in the beginning of every relationship, and in Phantom Thread the relationship is between finicky mama’s boy of a fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (the name played wonderfully straight by Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma, a waitress-turned-Woodcock-muse (newfound wonder Vicky Krieps). Their initial meeting is painterly in both its composition and its observance of gesture: Alma serves him tea with a characteristically high pour, and Reynolds looks up at her as both are framed by the window behind them. The camera drifts away in that moment, suggesting a concession of sorts—the frame seems to know the two are bound together by a strange tension. And this strange tension reverberates throughout their first date; the two eat dinner side by side, framed in a neat two-shot that doesn’t suggest intimacy so much as create the potential for it. That potential is fulfilled when Reynolds uses his napkin to wipe the lipstick off Alma’s lips—a startlingly out of place first date move if there’s ever been one. The film documents this in a series of extreme close-ups, turning each fragment of the image into a prized possession: Reynolds’ fingers dipping the napkin into the glass, Alma’s red-cheeked face, the light playing across Reynolds’s cheekbones. It speaks to the kind of careful attention present in the eidetic details of Glück’s poem. And this attentiveness recurs in a later silent scene of the two sitting across from each other—Alma in a bright red dress, looking at Reynolds, who quietly returns the gesture. Alma leans back in her chair and states, “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.”
In a relationship so based in the aesthetic, her statement becomes a kind of bet. Many critiques of the film have identified Reynolds as being a surrogate for director Paul Thomas Anderson, but few have pinned the role of director on Alma—neglecting the possibility that she understands the power of images and narrative even more than Reynolds does. This is best demonstrated by a fashion show sequence where Alma works as one among a group of models showing off Woodcock’s latest efforts: Alma is pushed out the door and down the hall, with the camera following her from behind as she slowly spins around for the eyes of the audience. The film suddenly cuts to Reynolds, mid-dressing a model, spinning on his heel and pressing his eye against the peephole at the door—then suddenly cuts back to Alma, whom the camera now seems to follow from Woodcock’s perspective. She smiles, playfully moving side to side as she walks backward, knowing exactly who her singular audience is. We see her consciously act for his attention. And the camera is intent, following her as if she controlled it, and remaining close to her in a way that Reynolds’s fixed eye cannot.
But attention fades, shifts, never stays fixed. At the start of the film, Reynolds splits up with a young woman who tells him, desperately, “There’s nothing I can say to get your attention aimed back at me, is there?” But Alma is not willing to be cast aside—she is not passive, and she is not just there to be observed. All of us spend our lives chasing after and trying to reclaim images of tenderness––but the way Alma does this is so out of left field as to be radical. We must get into the specifics of the film’s plot, including its later stages: She makes Reynolds ill with the assistance of toxic mushrooms, which are carefully portioned out to render him “helpless” and “tender” (Alma’s own words). In many interviews, Anderson has said the idea came to him while he was ill and was being cared for by partner Maya Rudolph: “Oh, she is looking at me with such care and tenderness,” he told Rolling Stone, “wouldn’t it suit her to keep me sick in this state?” And it does suit Alma. Reynolds’ subsequent vulnerability makes him her ideal audience, turning him into a person willing to be worked upon and taken care of. She draws the blinds closed in his sickroom, and removes her shoes; the space becomes dark, and the light warm but steadier, not flickering like the firelight of their first date. Alma’s dress is red, but darker now than when she first remarked on her talent for staring contests. As she walks into the room to check on him, Reynolds is in the midst of a fever dream, envisioning his long-dead and much-beloved mother—a mother he spoke of to Alma on their first date, and whose photo he persists in carrying around. Yet her ghostly figure comes as a shock here. The film cuts from Reynolds’s observing face to Alma, the camera following her like Reynolds’s eyes as she walks across the room, his mother staring out from the background. Within that camera movement, his mother disappears, and all that remains is an image of care so intent that it breaks your heart.
In that instant, that instant of vulnerability produced by Alma’s cunning, the past—Reynolds’s love for his mother, their intense first date—and present unite. And so a new whole is formed. We cannot stop images from disappearing, or the frame from moving by, and neither can Alma. But we are capable of slowing things down, of allowing ourselves to be made bare and open by another; and to, just for a moment, see the gestures or glances that brought us to that person to begin with. The past shines through the present moment, and an image of tenderness informed by both of these things comes into being. These images might be images of departure, yes—but if we will them to be born, their arrival is just as sure too, their return as certain as their leaving. For Alma, the certainty of their return is matched by the certainty of her own intractable will. And lucky for most of us, the mushrooms are not entirely necessary.