"Phantom Thread" and its Inherent Comedy

Curator's Note

Boogie NightsPunch-Drunk Love and Inherent Vice are the most obviously comedic films by Paul Thomas Anderson, although all his movies possess moments of some humor. Phantom Thread is no different, as Anderson finds humor in Reynolds Woodcock seriousness. The movie has also impeccably timed shifts of tone, from drama to comedy, marked by perfectly snippy dialogue. 

Paul Thomas Anderson followed his collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis, in There Will Be Blood, with this story about a fictional 50s British dressmaker, Reynolds Woodcock, a demanding perfectionist that finds in waitress Alma a new muse and model. The auteur-esque qualities of both Anderson and Day-Lewis and their oeuvres— as well as the music, the costume design, or even the music — can lead spectators into thinking Phantom Thread is an ominous drama. Soon, it’s subtly and slowly revealed that this is less about an unyielding genius, but a film with its tongue squarely in its cheek, detailing how these two lovebirds, reluctant to bend their wills, find wicked balance in their relationship. 

Director and actor evidently find Woodcock’s seriousness and strictness to be highly amusing and the film shifts from drama to comedy by leaning into Reynolds’ petulant behavior as source of humor. There are several scenes particular successful at these swift changes of tone that are often marked by “scathing one-liners”. At one point, as Alma brings him tea, he haughtily berates her for the interruption. The drama of the lovers’s quarrel is thusly counterbalanced by a petulant remark that pokes fun at his self-importance. Similarly, later, Anderson plays up the volume of a buttered toast being eaten, extracting comedy from a tense situation by the smart use of sound.

From Woodcock’s outburst at being confronted with the notion of “chic”, to his sister’s dressing him down at the breakfast table, as well as his declaration [spoilers] “kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick”, both Anderson and Day-Lewis pepper the film with comedic line readings that puncture the ridiculous self-seriousness of the character. It’s relevant to point out that the director has talked about the presence of comedy in The Master, where he finds it funny “when someone is so serious, when they are so dedicated to what they believe”, as it happens in Phantom Thread. The dialogue that provides most of the film’s wit has, in fact, render it one of the "most meme’d movies of 2017” – also evidenced by Vulture’s Valentines cards inspired by the film.


Stevi Costa's picture

Anderson and Sound

One thing I found so striking about There Will Be Blood which did not find its way into my post yesterday is the films dichotomy between volubility and silence. As I mentioned, it’s a film that doesn’t contain a large amount of dialogue, so we do pay extra attention as viewers to the use of monologue when it occurs. The first 14 minutes of the film feature no human speech at all. It is a world of silent labor, punctuated by the strike of a mining tool or the atonal score by Greenwood.

Your comments on how Anderson turns up the volume to show us Woodcock’s comedic distress at the Alma’s volubility seem to resonate with the interplay of silence and sound in There Will Be Blood. Anderson has quite a keen ear for piercing through silence with sound in strategic and purposeful ways. I think it’s arguable that the lack of speech in most of TWBB invites us to read the film through H.W.’s perspective (as I do these days, but only because I work in disability studies), where it seems completely apparent that the outlandish volume of Alma’s toast-buttering is deliberately a way of reinforcing Woodcock’s perspective for the viewer.


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