I absolutely adore Phantom Thread. Many of its qualities seem handpicked to whet the cinephile’s appetite, from the delicacy and precision of character movement, to the dreamlike quality of the score, to the range of emotions that emanate from Alma, Reynolds, and Cyril in every frame. Similar to many of my personal favorites, it is a film which makes the ordinary hypnotic.
Another quality which endears cinephiles to Phantom Thread is the obvious reverence that it has for film history. Director Paul Thomas Anderson repeatedly mentioned Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) as the main inspiration for the film, but other images and styles from the annals of film history pulsate through Phantom Thread. A simple Google of “Phantom Thread influences” finds numerous essays and videos attempting to showcase Anderson’s appreciation for the masters of the form who came before him:
However, there is one influencer of Anderson (and consequently Phantom Thread) who seems to be missing from the conversation.
Paul Thomas Anderson loved Jonathan Demme. Following Demme’s passing in April 2017, Anderson moderated an entire weekend’s worth of discussions and panels on Demme’s oeuvre. Anderson made note of a number of motifs which stood out to him during the screenings, a few of which you can see clearly imprinted upon Phantom Thread:
“One thing I would say about all of Jonathan [Demme]’s films is that there’s not background in the traditional way that you see like somebody mindlessly crossing in the background of an office. Literally everything, every person in the frame seems to have some role or story going on.” –Paul Thomas Anderson
While Phantom Thread is an intensely personal film, chronicling the dynamic relationships of Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril Woodcock, Anderson ensures that any scene with extras shows said extras with some ulterior action or motive. In taking this cue from Demme, Anderson creates an entirely new multi-dimensional world with Phantom Thread. A world alive with people of all shapes and walks of life, not merely a sandbox for our central characters to roam in. For a film which deals with wealth, opulence, and luxury, such a grounding in reality is crucial. It allows the viewer to engage with the piece in a manner not possible while residing strictly in the realms of fantasy.
Another aspect of Deme’s film-making that is imprinted in Phantom Thread (and Anderson’s filmography in general) is Demme’s choice in shot angles and framing. Demme loved to experiment with what he called the “subjective camera”, and expand upon “the little snippets you see in Hitchcock and Sam Fuller”. In most cases, Demme represented this via extreme closeups directly in front of a character’s face. Demme fully admits to not inventing this type of shot, but he did take it further than almost anyone else (except Yasujirō Ozu). In some film circles, the shorthand term for this type of shot is “the Demme closeup”. And indeed, both Demme and Anderson make heavy use of these extreme closeups, which have a tendency to make characters appear to pierce the fourth wall and make eye contact with the viewer. This angle has appeared throughout both of the directors’ filmography, shown below from Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993), and Beloved (1998); and Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2017):
While this is a solid starting point, there’s even more to be found be delving into Demme’s idea of the “subjective camera”, and how it relates to Phantom Thread.
Take, for example, Demme’s Swimming To Cambodia. It is, ostensibly, nothing more than a recording of Spalding Gray’s on-stage monologue of the same name. But Demme’s choice of when to use the subjective camera is of note. One such example comes when Gray is imitating his girlfriend yelling at a neighbor (below). Demme places the viewer in the yellee’s shoes, to punctuate the intensity of moment:
But if we go beyond this initial analysis, we find more levels of subjectivity in this shot. As much as it may feel like it, we aren’t being put in Gray’s neighbor’s shoes, because we are receiving the tale secondhand. Gray is merely conveying his girlfriend’s shouting to the audience as he understands it, and Demme is conveying his understanding of Gray’s attempt to replicate the scenario. The layered meaning of the “subjective camera” throughout Demme’s filmography lies beyond the innovative framing of perspective shots.
Anderson takes this idea of subjectivity even further in Phantom Thread. The film’s story is framed as being told to Reynolds’ doctor by Alma, following her ‘mild’ poisoning of Reynolds to “calm him down”. This easily forgotten detail is crucial, and informs how Phantom Thread should be watched by an active viewer. Alma is our guide through the world of London couture and House Woodcock. This detail is the raison d’être for the dreamlike quality of banal sequences, the hypnotic rhythm of the day-to-day, and the overall intensity of the film. It is one Alma removed from reality, thus coloring the world seen on screen as she sees fit. It contains a filter that could be said to contain a mixture of nostalgia, and either exaggeration or understatement.
Was Reynolds truly as overbearing, anal, controlling, and possessive as he is portrayed in Phantom Thread? Or is Alma remembering it that way to justify her actions in poisoning him? Or is the opposite true? Could Alma be underselling Reynolds’ toxicity to justify her love for him and fend off a doctor that clearly desires her? Ultimately it is for the viewer to determine.
But it is vital to recognize that we are not observing Phantom Thread through anyone’s eyes but Alma’s, and the entire film is viewed through this “subjective camera”. Anderson has taken Demme’s love for the subjective camera to its limits, by subtly making an entire film told via this view, all while weaving elements of Demme, Hitchcock, and over a century of film history into the tale.
Phantom Thread is a fitting homage to one of the great directors of the modern popular cinema, who himself was an avid student of film history. It takes elements of Demme’s style, mixes them with the things Demme loved, and creates a masterwork of subjective storytelling. Anderson provides a wonderful send off, for the mentor who influenced him most.