Talking “Cure” in Phantom Thread

Suggested Preliminary Listening: Lady Gaga, “The Cure” (2017)

Several outlets have reported that Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest offering, a strange and beguiling response to Hitchcock’s Rebecca, takes its title from a Victorian malady that, as far as I can tell, never existed. If you believe the marketing, “phantom thread” describes a condition wherein East London seamstresses, having finished earning their daily bread in crowded Victorian slop shops, would compulsively continue miming the action of stitching once they had left work. It seems a plausible bit of folklore, given the extent to which the fashion industry has historically thrived on the exploitation of women, the antecedents to the fleet of uniformed marms who ascend the stately staircase every morning to reach Reynolds Woodcock’s atelier. Like most disorders, it makes for a good story – if only this one were real.

This fact is certainly not lost on Alma Elson, whose testimony is the film’s real “phantom thread.” It is so easy to forget that the curious case of Reynolds Woodcock begins its life as her confession to someone positioned out of frame. Our first image is Vicki Krieps’s impassive face lit by hearthside glow, confessing what it is like to give everything, and no less, to “a most demanding man.” Selected as his latest muse, Alma initially seems passive to the point of total exploitation, first encountering her eventual husband as his waitress in a countryside inn, tripping with guileless clumsiness and blushing so deeply crimson that I can scarcely believe the bloodflow was not added in post. Who wouldn’t be captivated by the mitteleuropean accent, the hooded eyes, the dispassionate smirk that serves as the only index of her unspoken history as a survivor of the ravages of the Second World War? If anyone can stave off the diseased agony of a creative slump, it’s Alma. And as the narrative winds its way forward and we finally realize, in a startling reverse shot, that her interlocutor is not just anyone but the young doctor (Brian Gleeson) summoned to treat Woodcock after he collapses in his studio, Anderson means us to start asking questions about who owns stories of sickness and toward what uses they might be put.

* * *

Whatever substantial debts Anderson owes to Hitchcock in the bizarre love triangle that gives Phantom Thread its structure, perhaps nothing is of greater importance than the British auteur’s popularization and emplotment of psychoanalysis. Woven delicately across multiple genres (heist caper, revenge thriller, gothic romance) the Freudian tissue of Oedipal desire, repressed memory, and deviant obsession gives Hitchcock’s oeuvre a coherence that boils down to a common promise: if we can expose the hidden queerness of the mind, then we can solve the inevitable mystery. And Hitch, who exposed the libidinal nausea behind the innocent observation that a boy’s best friend is his mother, could in no way resist Daniel Day-Lewis’s effete confection of a couturier.

An avowed momma’s boy who painstakingly sewed the wedding dress for her marriage to husband number two (not a word on husband number one), Reynolds Woodcock admits to Alma on their first date that he has sewn her photograph into the lining of his dinner jacket, placing a hand over his heart. His various superstitions range from other good luck charms sewn into dress hems to an omnipresent pair of lucky pink socks (from Gamerelli’s in Rome, naturally) to a fetishistic bowl from which he can slurp his tea – and the wrong scone can cause a disastrous “confrontation” that would simply spoil the day. That Alma is talking to a doctor about it suggests Woodcock’s persnicketiness is pathological; yet the only disease Woodcock sees in all of this is his status as an inveterate bachelor, since marriage would force him into an insupportable deceit. “I’m incurable,” he purrs, smiling.

As his relationship with Alma develops, we begin to understand the extent to which his carefully cultivated nonchalance is merely a fragile façade over stormier depths. The avatar of unflappable calm in the House of Woodcock is his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), a starched proxy for Mrs. Danvers equal parts Cato and Capone (with all of the latent lesbianism Hitchcock imposed on du Maurier’s original creation). Swiftly dispatching with Reynolds’s line of previous muses, she views his superstitions with the same practicality with which she apparently manages his finances: if infatuation, like old women’s money, is what pays for this House, then infatuation he shall have.

Though she first appears to Alma in the story of Woodcock’s mother’s wedding dress as the victim of superstition, condemned to spinsterhood by brushing the accursèd hem, Alma quickly sees how Woodcock atones by inviting Cyril to attend to almost every place where romance might take root. In the sensual coda to their first dinner, Woodcock literally places Alma on a pedestal and begins selecting a fabric for a gown. She is so caught up in the movement from turquoise to aubergine that she barely notices Cyril enter, sit down on a sofa, and whip out a notebook from nowhere, where she begins recording Alma’s measurements. “You have no breasts,” Woodcock observes drily as Alma flushes, glancing at his sister. But not to worry, he reassures her: he will give them to her. By the time Woodcock’s “old so-and-so” joins them on a date in a restaurant, Alma, newly attired in her first original dress and easily the most expensive thing she has owned in her life, understands that to pursue a relationship with Reynolds means of necessity placating his sister.

Hitchcock would call this the stuff of great melodrama; academics would call it overdetermined; but personally, I call it the definition of a “toxic environment.” #MeToo and #TimesUp have, by most accounts, introduced toxicity into the bloodstream of the American entertainment industry, even if a more accurate description would be to say that they have simply (and accurately) reclassified much of that blood as having always been poisonous, particularly to women. Phantom Thread is merely the latest in a series of films that explore the ravages of apparently unchecked masculine libido, the rage perpetually simmering beneath Woodcock’s surface that leads to the occasional outburst when his just-so desire for control reaches its inevitable limit in a willful woman.

Alma, like her antecedents, quickly challenges Woodcock’s perfect order – it begins innocuously enough with making “simply too much noise at breakfast” scraping butter on a piece of toast, but when Alma begins voicing her opinion on matters of taste during a fitting, engaging in a bit of badinage about color and material, Woodcock shuts it down with a cutting “Enough!” By the time she prepares an entire meal for him, it takes only a single bite of asparagus (poached in oil, not butter) to set him off: “Were you sent here to ruin my evening and possibly my entire life?” he sputters, “Right now, I’m admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you prepared it.”

Alma’s rejoinder meets him on a similarly existential plane: “All your rules and your clothes and all this money, and everything is a game!” Woodcock’s miscalculation in their relationship seems to be his assumption that a working-class Belgian orphan who managed to extricate herself from a war-torn continent and land in the bucolic English countryside would ever let herself be laid low by a mere megalomaniac. And if insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then surely the onus is on Woodcock if his muses never seem to work out. She gave him fair warning, putting an enigmatic stamp on a romantic ramble over the heath by cautioning “Whatever you do, do it carefully.” So she devises a little plan to meet toxicity with toxicity, as we see her, in the film’s most Hitchcockian shot, filtered through rippling sepia from the bottom of Reynolds’s tea bowl, steeping a deliberately nonlethal dose of poisonous fungi.

* * *

Call for the doctor. We know things are bad when Cyril desides the hermetic seal on the House of Woodcock must be broken under the circumstances. Despite Alma’s insistence that she will be Reynolds’s perfect nurse and restore him quickly back to health, our doctor, Reynolds’s godson, rushes to examine him. Up the flights of stairs, down the hallway, into the bedroom lit by hearthside glow, and over to the prostrate titan, who promptly tells him “Fuck off.” Alma escorts him and Cyril back into the hallway before, with a comic flourish of her wrist, just shutting the door in their perturbed faces. It was not until much later that I realized the room in which Alma eventually conducts her interview with Dr. Hardy, the occasion for narrating Phantom Thread that frames and holds the whole thing together, was likely this same bedroom, reddish and ruddy with firelight, after Woodcock’s “relapse.”

By making herself toxic, Alma makes herself the cure; her cocksure plan goes off without a hitch, with Reynolds going so far as to compromise an essential part of his philosophy of relationships and propose marriage. This is all Alma has wanted for much of the film, not a formal validation of their love but the opportunity to become his exclusive caregiver, to provide something that other merely beautiful muses simply cannot. As Woodcock hungrily eyes a Belgian princess whose wedding dress he is about to create, Alma seethes with envy, boldly introducing herself to the royal before pettily tossing off, “I live here.” But in this example of deconstruction par excellence – the Greek word pharmakon, from which derives “pharmacy,” can notoriously be translated as either “cure” or “poison” – the fundamental instability of Alma’s strategy raises many questions about the core of her relationship to Reynolds.

Would he still love her if he knew she poisoned him? Must she make him into a case of Munchausen-by-proxy to keep him? And, most egregiously presumptuous of all, how can such deluded people possibly be helped? The instability between cure and poison becomes nearly untenable when, after their marriage, Woodcock attempts to scapegoat his own creative lapse on the new speck of dust lodged in the house. To Cyril, he wonders whether Alma has not ruined everything, not only the work but the delicate separation of powers that enable brother and sister to keep the house afloat. Cyril listens impassively as Alma enters behind him and hears every word.

* * *

As the film shuttles toward its climax, I feel it is important to trace out another phantom thread keeping the chassis from absolutely rattling apart. Were this Hitchcock, these clues would become the substance of psychodrama, indices into the secret diseases and disorderly passions in need not only of straightening out, but likely of downright detection. The last step, in movies from Spellbound to Psycho to Vertigo to Rear Window, is admitting you have a problem. But the characters in Phantom Thread are by and large extraordinarily forthcoming with their peculiarities, routinely making a farce of exposing their ids.

The breakfast order that Woodcock rattles off when he first meets Alma is prodigious to the point of ridiculousness, its excess only having any kind of sense in a Looney Tunes bit – one waits for him to tie the bib around his neck and run his tongue over his lips. During a private fashion show at the atelier, he leaps to a peephole to steal a glance at Alma’s turn, the camera treating us to an extreme close-up of his lascivious rolling eyeball – and to Alma’s knowing stare directly through the door. In Phantom Thread, Anderson exposes the great mystery of Hitchcock’s formula, his unique marriage of melodrama and psychoanalysis, for the silliness that it is. How could the notion that melodrama’s vocabulary of overacted attitude and contortion be an appropriate vehicle for concealing the inner workings of anything at all? It’s all right there, in the man’s name.

By the time we reach the final trip to the country, there are no secrets in the House of Woodcock. Cyril, more than anyone, has seen to that. “I’m very fond of her,” she confesses to her brother at tea one morning, after pointing out that if he wants to get rid of her, he should simply have her do it rather than just “make her into a ghost.” As Woodcock’s stony silence threatens to enfold her into his scapegoating, she shoots back a jet of pure acid: “Don’t pick a fight with me, you certainly won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor. Understood?” Where Mrs. Danvers can see no other solution than to set Manderlay ablaze, Cyril channels her aggression into the minutest sip from a teacup, confident that Reynolds and Alma are, in their own strange way, of precious value to each other.

With all the cards laid out on the table, the only mystery that remains is for Alma to disclose how she has managed to so enrapture her husband, which, in a bravura performance of creative cookery, she does. She serves an omelette as an ultimatum, an oil-soaked, electric yellow question mark punctuated by the most absurd pour of water ever put to celluloid (she slowly raises her elbow so far above the glass that it jostles the lamp hanging over them). Reynolds sees her prepare the mushrooms, sees her consult the guidebook, sees the lumps of fleshy fungus extruding from his meal. Alma, over an empty plate, dares him to eat it without saying a word.

* * *

The difference between poison and cure, in many cases, comes down to a matter of dosage. Taken as a whole, the lethality of Alma’s creation is unquestionable. For a man of Reynolds Woodcock’s apparent insatiability, there is no greater imposition of control than demanding he curb his appetite on pain of death. In the single morsel of scenery that Daniel Day-Lewis campily chews, waiting for reassurance before swallowing in a Tex Avery gulp – perhaps I imagined seeing the lump actually move down his throat – Alma sees her husband develop a twisted appreciation for her own métier. Through his work, Reynolds makes Alma into elegance incarnate. “I never thought of myself as beautiful,” she admits to Dr. Hardy, wistfully remembering an earlier state of affairs. But in exchange for that work, Alma must be allowed to exercise her own skill. “You will not die,” she says blandly, a declaration of fact. “You may wish you could rather die, but you will not die. I will take care of you.” As she cradles him near a wash basin, they talk about love, inspiration, and interdependence before he excuses her from the room to vomit. It’s okay. He’ll be hungry later.

Phantom Thread is a revisionist psychodrama, one that admires the delicate stitching of Hitchcock’s garments of pathology much in the same way Reynolds admires his dress for the Belgian royal: “It’s beautiful,” he mutters, feeling the toxic effects of Alma’s poisoned tea. “It’s just not very good.” To the outside observer, the dress is a masterpiece; to Woodcock, what is the good of a garment, a life, that Alma never inhabited? To the good doctor, Alma’s imaginative launch into the future must seem utterly fantastical. We are treated to a solarized image of Reynolds and Alma strolling to meet Cyril on a park bench, depositing their baby carriage with auntie before continuing along. We are taken back to the gaudy and outrageous New Year’s Eve party that Woodcock wrenched Alma away from, abandoned and silent but for the rustle of crepe paper across the floor, where the lovers dance together. And we are at last (finally!) taken into the bedroom. “I’m hungry,” he purrs, smiling.

Of course there are Freudian explanations for this entire codependent mess at the film’s conclusion. Who cares? Phantom Thread’s embrace of the most heteronormative of partnerships by way of the most unorthodox simply proves that our elective affinities may at their most powerful transcend the tidy explanations of disease and disorder. Like its title, the film suggests that the drives and compulsions undergirding Hitchcockian psychodrama may be no more than mythological, narrative devices of sound symbology that nevertheless utterly miss the complex strangeness of the most daring relationships. Its logic of multiplied negativity, of toxicity negating yet driving greater toxicity, produces a passion rotten to the core and all the more aromatic, if not aromantic, for it.

And as for the good doctor, the recipient of Alma’s entire tale of passionate madness? As Woodcock muses when they meet him at a dinner party, recalling their last hazy encounter, “Didn’t I tell you to fuck off?”

Next Week (1/31): Call Me By Your Name

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