Review: Phantom Thread (2018)

“You are not cursed, you are loved by me.”

What begins as an innocent story of love between a meticulous, mildly unsettling dressmaker and a wilful waitress takes an eerie turn into an exploration of the psychology of an abusive relationship in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. By the end, the viewer may begin to ponder if the words “cursed” and “loved” can become interchangeable.

The first thing we hear Alma say is, “Reynolds has made my dreams come true. And I have given him what he desires most in return… every piece of me.” This line, while alluding to her devotion to him, is the first piece of evidence for the strangeness of their relationship and the unsustainability of their bond. Alma claims that she has given “every piece” of herself to Reynolds; that level of dedication could be interpreted as her submission to Reynolds’ strange desires. He requires complete dedication from his partner; he wants to possess and consume until there is nothing left.

A running metaphor throughout the film is hunger and thirst as a substitution for lust. As a way of reminding him of his commitment to her after he receives the attention of two young women, Alma says to Reynolds, “Have you had enough to eat?… You seem thirsty.” These words have a profound effect on Reynolds, perhaps because it alerts him to the fact that his muse is acting as he wants her to. Open to consumption – every piece of her. However, despite briefly securing his attention, the very next morning, he storms out after she butters her toast too loudly.

The pair desire one another, but Reynolds cannot handle the fact that Alma is her own person and will not bow to his every scrupulous requirement. To be quiet, to not disturb him. This relates to the toxic possession present in their relationship; both need and want the other, but Reynolds wants to wrap and cage Anna, shaping her into his ideal companion – another silent, low-maintenance muse. In some ways, Alma bends to his will, allowing him to have his routines, to shout and punish. But, eventually, she grows tired of being his doll, and takes her revenge – quietly and unexpectedly.

The descent into madness is slow. It begins towards the start of Act Two. Alma brings Reynolds a cup of tea, and he snaps at her. She is ignored and brushed aside. It also seems that Reynolds experiences short periods of sickness due to the intensity of his work. It is when we see this happen, and see Alma hold him in his bed, that the pair seem the least at odds with one another.

We fall to the point of no return, though, after the asparagus scene.

Reynold’s response to the words “I love you” are “What is this?” Then, everything suddenly comes out. Alma feels that she is waiting for him to get rid of her, like with his other conquests. Reynolds is outraged that she is bursting out of the dress-shaped cage he has made for her – even perplexed as to why she feels neglected. She is no longer quiet; she is shouting at him at the top of her voice. So, his solution, rather than to recognise how he has affected her, is to shout back. Voices rise and rise, forming a chaotic duet of toxicity. 

The descent into madness becomes truly irreversible when Alma slips poisonous fungi into Reynolds tea. The reason for Reynolds’ sickly episodes becomes apparent; it was Alma from the start. Here, it becomes clear that Reynolds is not the only toxic side of the relationship.

The poisonous mushrooms are a clear allegory for the toxicity of an abusive relationship, which is no doubt what the two protagonists are enclosed in. They could be seen as a way for Alma to fight her abuser, but in her way of doing it, she becomes one herself. But she does it because she loves Reynolds, not because she wishes him to come to harm. When he is sick, he is vulnerable, and more susceptible to affection. He is a difficult man to love, as we saw from Johanna. But Alma makes it her mission to be different, to endure him by whatever means possible. Plus, Reynolds is fully aware of what she is doing to him, and lets her do it – because, in his own way, he loves her too.

The rest of Reynolds and Alma’s journey is not disclosed to the audience. What becomes of them? Are they to be trapped in an endless cycle of toxicity? Does their extreme relationship eventually crumble, allowing one of them to escape? Or does their bond prove too much for them both, leaving them shrivelled and sapped of life and energy. Do they see one another as loved, or as cursed? But, as we can see from their relationship, being “loved” and being “cursed” can certainly become indistinguishable from one another.

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Jessica Wilkinson

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