Break Up with Him at Breakfast

Phantom Thread is an appropriately knotty and tangled film about love, genius, grief and ghosts. It’s a glacially cold but beautiful piece, much like one of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis)’s lifelessly sumptuous gowns, that intrigued but failed to enchant me although it did make me want to order an absurdly large breakfast. And start drinking Lapsang Souchong.

What I unsurprisingly found most interesting about the film was its exploration of Reynolds Woodcock’s (a knowingly excessively masculine name) complete and utter dependence on the women who surround him. The space in which he lives and works is inhabited entirely by women. There’s his resident muse, his archly resigned sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and his small army of submissive seamstresses who do the “woman’s work” that is the actual crafting of the dresses he designs. He is quite literally haunted by the memory of his dead mother, clearly alluded to in the title of the film, and as far as I can recall barely interacts with any men at all.

At first glance the film is as much a story of Vicky Krieps’ Alma, Reynolds’ newest muse, as it is of the dressmaker himself. The film is bookended by her narration and we experience the story largely through her eyes. In his review for Sight and Sound Adam Nayman writes that Phantom Thread marks Paul Thomas Anderson’s first foray into female subjectivity “after two decades of fixating on macho masochism”. I would argue that the film is still focused on macho masochism but even more so on the female masochism that accommodates it. As soon as they meet Alma is plucked from her waitressing job and swept up in Reynolds’ icily elegant world. Initially she is dazzled by his attention and although she quickly starts butting heads with him over his pernickety nature she learns to butter her toast silently. We see him start to tire of her and in her resigned tone Cyril offers to discard her on his behalf as we’ve seen her do with his previous muse. But Alma clings on a little longer and after he falls mysteriously ill and she nurses him back to health he abruptly proposes marriage. Their relationship soon sours again however and while he contemptuously eats a mushroom omelette she has cooked for him it is revealed that she has intentionally poisoned him several times with the wild mushrooms solely so that she can take care of him. “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick”, he says, grinning with delight at her transgression, and Jonny Greenwood’s stunning score swells darkly.

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It would be easy to view Alma as the victor in their power struggle. By deliberately debilitating Reynolds she forces him into a position of vulnerability. He allows her to mother him and this prompts a resurgence of love stemming from his unresolved feelings of grief for his real mother. “I feel as if I’ve been looking for you for a very long time” he tells her. So far, so Freud. She reignites his affection by cooking, that most fundamental of feminine domestic activities, and uses poison which is often considered a women’s weapon in popular culture and is of course associated with Snow White’s wicked stepmother. The preparation of food plays a significant role throughout the film and you could easily argue that Alma utilising cooking to control her husband is a subversion of the role of subservient woman. But ultimately while her choice to play the dutiful wife does give her some semblance of power she is still sacrificing her own independence in order to support this supposed genius.

The end of the film is clearly not intended to be a happily ever after as the pair remain locked in this toxic relationship where any time Reynolds’ attention drifts he’ll allow Alma to feed him more mushrooms and gain the illusion of the upper hand. He is still dependent on her as Muse and as Mannequin but through her manipulation she forces him to become dependent on her as Mother. And of course this is precisely what he’s always wanted. There’s an implication that she has gained control over him but ultimately she has trapped herself in these roles which she must perform in order for him to continue to create. These performances mean her life remains entirely focused on his needs, just as his sister Cyril’s life has been. Alma demonstrating a degree of agency and successfully outsmarting him doesn’t stop her being a victim of his emotional abuse.

It’s debatable as to whether Phantom Thread romanticises the emotional abuse at its core. Paul Thomas Anderson does appear to at least be aware that he has written a film about an unbalanced relationship, which is more than can be said of many filmmakers. In the very first scene of the film which we return to at the end Alma says “Reynolds has made my dreams come true. And I have given him what he desires most in return…every piece of me”. The Guardian‘s Guy Lodge observes that the first half of the film follows a familiar path of “a tortured male creative genius…taking out his art-fuelled frustrations and insecurities on a blameless female victim” but Alma “begins to assert herself in ways that aren’t immediately perceptible”. He describes it as “neither a story of subjugation nor one of empowerment” and that “all traditional notions of one-way control are out the window”. In contrast, in her piece for Bust Zoey Peresman argues that the film is a “is a rich text on how we accept horror disguised as romance that asks us to deconstruct and rewrite the toxic narrative of emotional abuse.” Both Reynolds and Alma certainly perform roles of dominance and submission and yet there is an essential imbalance: Alma continues to exist for him. Can she really be the true protagonist of the film if she has no backstory and no interior (or really much exterior) life? I would argue that a female character who exists to provoke depth and complexity in a egotistical man-child of a character fundamentally can’t.

While I walked out of Phantom Thread not really knowing how I felt about the complex dynamic at its heart and critics’ seeming reluctance to engage with the film as a story of abuse I did feel inspired to send Alma a playlist encouraging her to ditch Reynolds, grab a few gowns and get the hell out of there. For my part, there is no greater act of love than making a cup of tea for someone unprompted and Reynolds snapping at Alma interrupting him with a tea tray might be darkly funny but to me it’s truly heartbreaking.

So here it is, fifteen songs to inspire you to butter your toast and drink your Lapsang as loudly as you like for your listening pleasure: