"Phantom Thread" and its Inherent Comedy

Curator's Note

Boogie Nights, Punch-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 Anderson, Day-Lewis and their oeuvres— as well as the music, costume design, and music — can lead spectators into thinking Phantom Thread is an ominous drama. Soon, it’s subtly and slowly revealed that this is 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 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.

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