How do you come back from experiencing your partner’s naked contempt? How can a relationship recover once all boundaries of respect and decency have been violated? In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the titular character’s contentious romance with Mr. Rochester finds peaceful resolution and equality only after Rochester is maimed in a house fire started by his mentally ill wife, his body and temperament humbled by divine justice. Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 psychosexual drama Phantom Thread follows in Brontë’s thematic footsteps with its depiction of the contentious, unstable relationship between acclaimed dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock and Alma, the latest in a long string of charmed, pampered, and discarded mistresses.
When Reynolds begins to distance himself from Alma through tantrums and needling, she deduces that the real problem lies in his bridling at the emotional demands of maintaining a long-term relationship. Reynolds isn’t tired of her but afraid of and irritated by the idea of opening up to her at a deeper level. Something has to give, and rather than surrender, Alma finds a way to force the kind of intimacy their relationship requires to survive. She poisons Reynolds with wild mushrooms. Incapacitated and under Alma’s care, Reynolds has no choice but to be vulnerable with her. Their bond is renewed by the trauma of his agonizing recovery, their positions rendered equal by his enforced physical and emotional submission to her.
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Love Among the Ruins
Vulnerability is an essential component of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. Without access to the naked emotion and sensation all human beings keep beneath their public-facing personae, there’s no way to carry on the lifelong work of holding the repressed and hidden parts of one another — the touching and witnessing of which is the main function of all intimacy. Phantom Thread appears at first to cut through that delicate balance of give and take. But when after willingly eating a meal he correctly suspects is poisoned Reynolds points his fork at Alma, inviting her to speak her mind, the film dives deeper into its exploration of what vulnerability means between two people. Alma must be vulnerable with him in turn.
“I want you flat on your back,” she tells him after a long silence. Her eyes are nearly black in the low lighting of the kitchen of their country house, the camera close on her hesitant mouth as she brings herself to utter this unthinkable thing. “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. You need to settle down a little.” The power game becomes an acknowledged part of their relationship, a mechanism to rejuvenate their marriage by placing Reynolds totally in Alma’s power. For Alma it’s a chance to touch her husband’s abject openness, for Reynolds a chance to move past stale, cyclical serial monogamy and into deeper emotional fulfillment.
The film maps the couple’s emotional evolution with meticulous precision. Reynolds meets Alma when she waits his table at a restaurant in the countryside, the imbalance in power immediately clear. Later he spirits her away to London and the dorm-like atmosphere of his dressmaking studio where she serves as muse, apprentice, and lover. Only in nature is Alma able to claim power over Reynolds, to force his submission and break down the rigid rules with which he surrounds himself and manipulates others. The edifice of modern society, in short, is inimical to their genuine intimacy. Only chaos permits growth.
Phantom Thread spends much of its time measuring and shaping women’s bodies. On their first date Reynolds reaches across the dinner table to wipe off Alma’s lipstick. Later that night he brusquely instructs her to strip so that he — with the aid of his sister, Cyril, who appears nearly from thin air — can take her measurements to fit her for a dress. From there the film launches into a long string of sequences in which Alma wears Reynolds’ couture. In voiceover she informs the audience that she can stand for hours on end without complaint, a living mannequin for her obsessive lover to focus on and micromanage. To Reynolds she’s a placeholder, a blank on which he can act out his idea of what a relationship entails. In many ways she remains functionally separate from him, uninvolved in their shared life, for the bulk of the film.
By carrying out the poisoning, Alma makes Reynolds’ body her own in the same way he co-opted hers for his work. Each submits to the other as an act of faith, and while the end result may be psychologically malformed and violent, it’s also a dynamic where honesty and vulnerability have begun to find purchase. By transforming one another’s bodies into their respective visions of love — Reynolds’ elegant, ordered, autocratic and Alma’s naked, raw, and abased — the two are able to find a species of real intimacy. It’s a bracingly adult and complicated view of love, too often served up bleached, scrubbed, and reduced to two people yearning for each other, as a lifelong gauntlet of fraught and demanding emotional work.
In Reynolds’ boyish smile as he kneels by the toilet in preparation for the symptoms of his poisoning, in Alma’s blunt admission that she wants to hurt him until he adores her again, Phantom Thread locates something vital about what it means to love another person. Love is as much cleaning up your partner’s vomit as it is sweet nothings whispered in nibbled ears. It’s filth and compromise and frustration and, inevitably, pain. Turning away from that pain, treating it as something to be avoided at all costs, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what love entails. Anderson’s film shows us that same suffering as ecstasy, as a natural part of being with another thinking, feeling human being. Phantom Thread really is about true love, in all its flayed and shameless ugliness.