The first time I saw Phantom Thread, I wasn't in the mood for a challenging film. I was celebrating my birthday with my daughter who’d flown home from D.C. to surprise me. It was a swirling weekend of joy that started with dinner with friends who’d all been scheming with my daughter to surprise me on Friday night, followed by 48 delicious hours doing all of my favorite things with my favorite person in the world.
We stayed up into the wee hours streaming ridiculous television (American Crime Story, in which she told me when to close my eyes at the gruesome bits related to the Versace murderer’s crime spree). We ate at our favorite haunts — Nonie’s for breakfast and dinner at Del Rossi’s. And, of course, we saw a movie. Because I love being in a cinema more than any other thing on earth, and my daughter knew she’d have to indulge me.
It was the run up to Oscars and I was eager to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which had just opened at the local cineplex. Anderson, a singular writing and directing talent, is not always a filmmaker whose work hits home for me. His fascination with odd and controlling men (The Master, There Will Be Blood) makes me uncomfortable and annoyed at times. I probably should have known better than to combine my exuberant weekend with the downer that can be an Anderson film. But how could I resist seeing Daniel Day-Lewis in his last acting role alongside the promise of women wearing fabulous fashion from the fifties?
It turned out to be the perfect mismatch. Our jubilant girls weekend ground to a halt when met face-to-face with Anderson’s meticulous, dysfunctional romance. A masterpiece it may be, but it felt devoid of emotional kindness, grace and love. The relationship at the core of the film was downright disturbing. My daughter and I stared at each other with bulging eyes and weary looks when the credits rolled. What was that? We pretty much hated it, went straight to Del Rossi’s, and drank a fair amount of wine.
Weeks later, my friend Mimi mentioned that she had just seen Phantom Thread and really liked it. Mimi, a discerning moviegoer, made me think that maybe I missed something the first time. Had I just not been in the mood for the film’s unconventional romance? It was nominated for six Academy Awards after all. In the spirit of being open minded about highly decorated films that I really sort of hate, I decided to see Phantom Thread a second time (à la La La Land).
Mimi and I agreed to see it together at our small local theater, which was hosting a movie club night. We not only saw the film but also talked about it afterward in a discussion group guided by a film teacher. Sure enough, once I’d seen the film again and listened to a very engaging talkback session, I saw many extraordinary elements of artistry. I had a stronger appreciation for its Hitchcockian references (the dissonant shards of amped-up music, the half-lit faces that left us searching for motives). The costumes were, of course, impeccable. The acting sublime. The plot twists unexpected. All of it combined to display an auteur’s mastery.
And still, I really didn’t like the film. It was intentionally challenging and I usually like provocative filmmaking. But this film’s emotional core and the coolness of the characters’ interior lives were just too disturbing; it unnerved me. We don’t have control over much in our own lives, but we do have control over how we engage with people in our closest relationships. And this, this.
What I did love about the film was its carefully curated world. It was shot with just the right degree of graininess to evoke the era. It was edited, lit, and scored with unerring precision. Even its storyline, which didn’t try to please, was impressive in its uncompromising portrayal of two people in interdependent flawed love. Of course, I may never eat mushrooms again, but that’s another story.
At least the story flowed consistently. I could follow Phantom Thread start-to-finish. I may not have liked it, but I got it.
These days, in our own lives, I wish I could at least understand the storyline I don’t like. We’re forced to derive narrative flow from a concatenation of YouTube videos, Facebook posts, and unpredictable tweets. Bits and pieces of story bubble up and subside completely unattended. We weave them together to come up with our own version of any story. No wonder dissonance ensues in our culture.
This disruption is induced by Trump, who appears to like to keep people guessing virtually all of the time, and supported by 24/7 news coverage that elevates the smallest part of a story to breaking news. It’s all so overwhelming and difficult to parse into meaningful information that many of us have just looked away.
But I don’t want to look away. In some strange way, I wish our cultural moment was more like an Anderson film. I may not like it, but at least I could comprehend it. Without a clear narrative, we have no real story to hang onto. Nothing to inspire or guide us. We need story. But what we have is a steady stream of raw footage that makes no sense. Without a skilled editor even reality television is unwatchable.
Like the “phantom thread” of the film’s title — a reference to an overworked seamstress’s hands at night, which continue to go through the motions of rapid-paced stitching even when there is no cloth to sew — I keep trying to construct narrative based on years of experience. I keep seeking it, longing for it, expecting it. I keep trying maybe even when it’s not there.
That’s what we all share now. The invisible habit of democracy. The longing to find meaning in the American dream. The hope that it’ll all be all right. The expectation of unity and civility. If only we can keep knitting ourselves together, persistently, without thinking. I believe it’s just who we are as Americans to keep reaching out, to understand the path forward. It’s certainly who I hope we can still be.