There is only one ghost scene in ‘Phantom Thread’, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, which is a little surprising, given the title. (The spoilers start right here, I’m afraid.) The hero, played by Daniel Day Lewis, glimpses his long-dead mother as he lies in a fever induced by a poisonous mushroom secretly administered by his ‘girlfriend’. I use inverted commas because the term is altogether too demotic for the rarefied world of this elegant film about elegant people, but really at this stage she has no proper status in the egomaniacal edifice that is his house/life/ work/reputation. And it is this indeterminate status that she overcomes by the poisoning, because, the moment he can get out of bed again, he asks her to marry him.
But back to the mother. We know who she is because we have seen her in a photograph earlier in the film. During his first date with the poisoner-to-be Alma (played by Vicky Krieps), Day Lewis’s character, Reynolds, explains that the wedding dress that his mother is wearing in the picture was made by him as a teenager, when she got married for the second time. It was the first dress he ever made. The husband, whoever he was, is nowhere to be seen.
It’s an affecting scene, as it helps us understand that Reynolds’s occupation as a dressmaker for the high-society set in 1950s London is rooted in his powerful connection to his dead mother. The scene also positions Alma as the person who understands what his mother means to him, in other words, the person who under- stands him tout court.
So when the mother’s spirit appears to him in his poison-induced fever dream, it is appropriate that she has been raised by Alma and her own weird hunger for love. It is appropriate because Alma ultimately proves herself to be the only person who can insert herself into this over-charged bond between unhappy son and dead mother, and in the process help him live a life for the living. The poison brings Reynolds closer to his mother and to Alma.
This helps explain the strangest part of the film, which is when Reynolds realises that Alma is planning to give him poison again, and voluntarily eats it. His normal being is in a prison house for which he has lost the key, and the only release available to him is provided by her.
Back to the photograph of the mother. It’s an antiquated, formal portrait of a woman in a constricting, formal dress, squarely facing the camera, her mouth clamped shut and without the slightest hint of joy on her features. When the mother appears as a ghost, she is exactly the same as in the photograph. She does not speak or move in any way. It’s as if the thing that is haunting Reynolds is not the flesh and blood mother, but the picture itself,.
The moment that this ghost version of the mother appears is worth dwelling on. Given that this is a ghost scene, and that it’s 2018, we might expect some kind of special effect, some computer-generated move that would merge the spirit realm with the feverish state of mind of the character on screen who sees the ghost. But Anderson eschews the trick shot. Instead, the actress simply stands there, seen by one character (the bed-ridden Reynolds) and unseen by the other (Alma), who moves around the room. We cut to the face of Reynolds, but when we see what he sees again, the mother is gone and Alma is there instead. It’s as simple as that.
The effect of it all is to emphasise the weird ghostliness of cinema itself, where images of the living and images of the dead are equally substantial, equally insubstantial. All cinema is a kind of trick shot, making us believe that we are seeing something that is not there. Anderson exploits this oddness to show us that this mother is neither living nor dead, but an undead presence with the same weight as all the other characters. The refusal to use any normally ghostly effects (mistiness, echoing sounds, uncertain lighting, etc.) makes it hard for us to decide whether Reynolds believes he is seeing a ghost, or he sees his real mother, or he actually sees a ghost, or he sees an actual ghost.
The lack of trickery keeps all the options open and makes it more possible to believe in this ghost than the standard cinematic tricks achieve. We know, of course, that he does not actually see a ghost, because nobody actually sees ghosts. If we could actually see them, they would not be ghosts. They would belong to a more solid category. And yet, the category of ghosts is there, in all of its illogic.
The story goes that Daniel Day Lewis gave up his theatrical career after playing Hamlet at the National Theatre in London in 1989. He said back then that the ghost of his father, the poet Cecil Day Lewis, appeared to him on stage, staring at him. He later somewhat retracted this version of events, saying instead that he was speaking more metaphorically than literally. It’s an unclarifying distinction, however, when it comes to ghosts, as ‘Phantom Thread’ makes clear (not to mention ‘Hamlet’).
The character of Hamlet is, after all, haunted by his father, or “thy father’s spirit” (is there a difference?), from the opening moments of the drama. Being the method actor that Daniel Day Lewis is, it should come as no surprise that the loss of his own father should inform his on-stage experience. And so it fits the actor’s personal myth that now he is ending his screen career with a film in which he sees the ghost of his mother. For an actor who so deeply invests himself in his roles, brushes with death feel perhaps rather too much like the real thing.
What will become of Daniel Day Lewis now? Actors before him have announced retirements, only to make comebacks, but somehow this seems unlikely in his case. What does an actor do who doesn’t act? It’s the odd non-role that former politicians occasionally find themselves in, especially when their retirement comes a little early in life (such as Enda Kenny, Bill Clinton, Mary Harney, and, someday, the not-yet-40 Leo Varadkar).
The end of Day Lewis’s career was a prominent feature of the promotion of the film, for understandable reasons, even to the point that it obscured attention on much in the film itself. It also possibly distracted commentary from the fact that this was not one of those totally unforgettable Day Lewis performances (my list would include ‘There Will Be Blood’, ‘In the Name of the Father’ and ‘The Age of Innocence’), which unfairly cast a very long shadow over efforts such as this one. As happens from time to time when a screen celebrity breaks through to an especially elevated status, the phenomenon of ‘Daniel Day Lewis’ exceeds the man himself.
For all his deep investment in character, accent and the emotional-physical training for various roles (as a boxer for ‘The Boxer’, as a tailor for ‘Phantom Thread’, as a speaker of Czech for ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, as a physically handicapped person for ‘My Left Foot’, the list goes on), the inescapable truth is that he was always Daniel Day Lewis, or ‘Daniel Day Lewis’ in each role. The very authenticity of his artifice was the thing that made him who he was, and he was in a strange way more like himself than he was like the characters he strove to be. For all the difference that he has imbued into his performances, he has been repeating himself for years.
Cormac Deane lectures in film and media at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology