How PHANTOM THREAD Romantically Portrays a Toxic Relationship

‘Reynolds has made my dreams come true. And I’ve given him what he desires most in return.’ ‘And what’s that?’ ‘Every piece of me.’

Phantom Thread (2017), directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson, has a unique style; creating an atmosphere peaceful and tense while telling a story terrifyingly romantic. The film score largely consists of gentle piano tunes accompanied by strings; the music builds a peaceful, romantic and at times suspenseful tone. Opposites merge in Reynolds’ and Alma’s story, the romance in their relationship gets stronger as it grows more pathetic. Alma’s physical insecurities and Reynolds’ emotional insecurities keep the two together; their conflicts strengthen their relationship. After they meet at a café where Alma (Vicky Krieps) is waitressing, Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) welcomes Alma into his life instantly. He is unaware that Alma’s determination will take the relationship much further than simply being lovers.

‘I never really liked myself.’ narrates Alma. ‘I thought my shoulders were too wide, my neck was skinny like a bird, that I had no breasts, I felt my hips were larger than needed. My arms too strong.’ Reynolds’s approval changes the way Alma can see herself. Thanks to all the beautiful and influential women taking pride in wearing Reynolds’ designs, Reynolds is an authority over female appearance. Alma is proud to be the woman Reynolds chose as his lover. She is determined to stay in Reynolds’ life, and this determination is her characteristic strength. Alma’s efforts drag their relationship to confrontations and intoxications, still she doesn’t give up on Reynolds. Her physical insecurities play an important part in her love for him. His approval makes her feel beautiful; she is in love with this newfound feeling of beauty perhaps more than he is with Reynolds. For her, their relationship means more than simply being his lover, it means she can be the woman she dreamt of becoming. She holds on to their relationship and insists on playing her role by her own rules rather than Reynolds’.

Reynolds has control over his life. Every new person who enters his life has to fit into a predetermined role, each of his girlfriends have to act the way he wants them to. If they can’t play it by Reynolds’ rules, they are sent out. Cyril (Lesley Manville) is the silent accomplice to all Reynolds’ affairs, including his romantic affairs. When Reynolds starts losing interest in his previous girlfriend, Cyril asks him: ‘What do you want to do about Johanna? I mean she is lovely, but the time has come. She is getting fat, sitting around waiting for you to fall in love with you again. I’ll give her the October dress… if it’s alright?’ We understand that this is a routine they follow with every girlfriend.

The women enter Reynolds’ life, and they start wearing the dresses he makes. They are like lifeless mannequins Reynolds can get rid of whenever he gets bored. He replaces them easily, this indifference towards them reveals a destructively narcissistic behavior. He thinks he can control everything and everyone, and that he is above everyone. The only person he seems to respect is Cyril but only as long as they are on the same side. Cyril’s role is to help and support Reynolds whichever way necessary: at times she acts like a mother caring for him, other times she acts like a wife -Mrs. Woodcock- supporting him. Reynolds calls her ‘My old so-and-so’. Reynolds’ life is under Cyril’s control before Alma comes in.

On their first date, Reynolds takes Alma’s body measures and Cyril writes them down. This resembles a modelling audition rather than a date; an audition for the role ‘Reynolds’ girlfriend’. A relationship with Reynolds is a business; cold and measured.

Alma’s part in Reynolds’ life starts with going through the basic steps Reynolds’ all girlfriends go through. On their first date, Reynolds takes Alma’s body measures and Cyril writes them down. This resembles a modelling audition rather than a date; an audition for the role ‘Reynolds’ girlfriend’. A relationship with Reynolds is a business; cold and measured. When Reynolds leaves the room Cyril tells Alma that she has the ideal shape. As Alma passes the test, Reynolds takes her out to dinners with Cyril, they have breakfast with Cyril, she wears dresses that Reynolds made under the supervision of Cyril. At this stage, Cyril and Reynolds act like they are Alma’s parents. When Reynolds puts Alma in a new dress and she doesn’t like the fabric, Reynolds and Cyril oppose her. Cyril says the fabric is perfect for the dress. Reynolds agrees. ‘Cyril is right. Cyril is always right.’

Alma looks down at the dress, like a stubborn little child. ‘Maybe one day you will change your taste Alma’ Reynolds scolds her. ‘Maybe not’ ‘Maybe you have no taste’ ‘Maybe I like my own taste.’ ‘Yes just enough to get you into trouble.’ ‘Perhaps I’m looking for trouble.’ ‘STOP!’ It is like a family fight where Reynolds and Cyril are Alma’s oppressive parents and they are trying to persuade Alma to accept their opinion. In another scene the three are having breakfast, and Reynolds picks up a fight with Alma because she is making too much noise. ‘Please don’t move so much Alma.’ ‘I’m buttering my toast I’m not moving too much’ ‘Well it’s too much. … It’s a distraction, it’s very distracting’ and he leaves the room. Cyril explains to Alma after he leaves; ‘his routine, when he’s in it, is best not shaken. … if breakfast isn’t right it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day.’ Cyril is acting like she is Reynolds’ wife and Alma’s mother, telling her daughter not to get on her father’s nerves. They don’t treat Alma like an equal, they don’t even treat her like she is an adult who is capable of making her own decisions.

Reynolds’ job is to make women look and feel attractive; being admired and dressed by Reynolds is an honor for his customers. Alma narrates: ‘… in his work, I become perfect. And I feel just right… Maybe that’s how all women feel in his clothes.’ Two young women approach their table when they are eating. One of the women says ‘Mr. Woodcock, I hope one day I can wear one of your dresses.’ This feels inappropriate. Alma is not disturbed, she is rather delighted; delighted that she is the one to wear his dresses. Reynolds has a sentimental relationship with both his customers and the dresses he makes. He pays attention to who wears his dresses, he wants only women he admires to wear his work. Alma knows this and she is proud. When she is wearing his dresses, she has the leading role in his little game. She gets jealous of the customers, and she hates to be just another one of Reynolds’ women. She wants to be the one and only woman in his life.   

Reynolds has superstitions against marriage and defines himself as a confirmed bachelor. To make sure he is in control, Reynolds builds walls to protect himself; he tries hard to keep his routine stable and other people under control. Alma struggles hard to surpass his walls and connect with him. When she sees Cyril is closer to Reynolds then she ever is, she tries to imitate her. She tries to take tea to Reynolds when he is working but being interrupted makes him angry. She tries to arrange a romantic dinner at the house, they end up arguing. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m just waiting around like an idiot for you.’ ‘Waiting for what?’ ‘Waiting for you to get rid of me. To tell me to leave. So tell me. So I don’t stand around like a fucking fool.’

Reynolds’ mother haunts their relationship from the very beginning. Before Reynolds meets Alma, he tells Cyril he ‘recently started thinking about mom, and that it feels as if she is closer to me than ever’. Cyril’s reply to this is to advise him to go to the country. So he goes there, where he meets Alma waitressing at a local restaurant. ‘Marriage would make me deceitful. And I never want that.’ ‘I think you are only acting strong’. While Reynolds’ respectable professional image gives him a strong place in the society, his private life reveals his inner isolation. Under his obsession to keep everything in order, there is a little boy that lusts for his mother’s care. Alma discovers the needy boy within Reynolds when she poisons him with mushrooms. As Reynolds lies sick in his bed, he hallucinates of his mother, and Alma comes in. In his sick state, the hallucination of his mother coalesces with Alma.

Alma never leaves his side when he is sick, she finds out that taking care of him when he is weak enables her to form the emotional bond she has been striving really hard for. Finally she finds the right role to play to be close to Reynolds: his mother. As Reynolds is trying to recover and Alma is caring for him, the doctor mistakes Alma for Reynolds’ wife and he calls her Mrs. Woodcock. This is the turning point in their relationship. From then on Alma has the upper hand, she knows exactly what she needs to do to get what she wants and Reynolds subjects to her. They get married and they conflict; but Alma knows what they need: poisonous mushrooms.

Phantom Thread tells an edgy, besetting story that touches the issues of many unhealthy relationships. Regardless of how unhealthy they are, relationships proceed as long as they are dressed in romance; so, Alma and Reynolds will -not happily but still- live ever after.

‘I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open with only me to help. And then I want you strong again. You’re not going to die. You might wish you’re going to die, but you’re not going to die. You need to settle down a little’. Reynolds submits willingly, he looks into Alma’s eyes as he eats the poisonous mushroom omelet Alma made for him. He gives up control, breaks down his rules for a newfound commitment: the ease of unquestioned subjection. They are bound to each other with the serenity of being in a dependent relationship. Alma gets to feel like a beautiful woman, and Reynolds gets to feel the care and protection of a mother figure. They both get what they need, even if their needs aren’t healthy and the way they acquire those needs is through a toxic relationship. With a natural color palette, a peaceful film score and the slow dissolutions in between scenes, the movie maintains a romantic and canny style. Yet although the story is told softly, it is far from being soft. Phantom Thread tells an edgy, besetting story that touches the issues of many unhealthy relationships. Regardless of how unhealthy they are, relationships proceed as long as they are dressed in romance; so, Alma and Reynolds will -not happily but still- live ever after.

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