di Lelio Semeraro
In an unnatural silence, a man is reading while a woman in the kitchen is preparing a mushroom omelette. She has collected and cleaned them, gently dried them only to then chop them into chunks. The camera lingers on the woman’s deliberately slow gestures, on the details of the scene: the frying pan, her movements as she breaks the egg into a bowl, the butter, the wild mushrooms that fade and then come back into the fat that surrounds them and finally the eggs, poured from high enough to prolong the moment when they dive into the pan to embrace mushrooms soaked with pleasure. The man looks at the woman. Intensely. The woman serves him the omelette and he takes a bite and surrenders to her and the spell of her dish.
This is the image that best describes one of the most acclaimed films of 2017, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest work, The Phantom Thread that has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards including one for Best Actor for the outstanding role played by Daniel Day-Lewis in his last film.
If it is true that all of Anderson’s film productions are driven by a certain urgency, craving or hunger for something, whether hunger for success as in Boogie Nights or yearning to leave a legacy like in The Master or There will be Blood, in The Phantom Thread the hunger for love takes the form of irresistible bulimia.
At the beginning of the film Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a famous couturier in the London of the ’50s, is intent on eating his breakfast in the small living room of the elegant home that doubles as a tailor workshop that he shares with his ubiquitous and granite-like sister Cyril (an extremely convincing Lesley Manville).
How Reynolds eats and how the scene develops, immediately defines the distinctive features of Woodcock’s character: he is not only arrogant and refined, but also neurotic, despotic and manic – he does not tolerate being disturbed while organising his work during breakfast. More noticeably he appears cold and apparently emotionless and perhaps even cruel as he dismisses a woman he’s been involved with from his table with haughty disdain.
In this rigid and claustrophobic setting the distinction between his private and public sphere is clearly defined. In contrast to the deafening and embarrassed silence of the small parlour in which Reynolds consumes his domestic meals, is the luminous and joyful atmosphere, white with light and fabrics of the Maison Woodcock design workshop, that is situated only a few steps away, and is crowded with industrious dressmakers, seamstresses, and embroiderers. This is Reynolds’ realm, where he rules supreme, where he can keep his deeper inner self under control, his insatiable appetite is kept at bay.
A few scenes later, he is once again seen at a table of a seaside restaurant, just outside the city. Reynolds is struck by a young, but not particularly charming waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps, who is a revelation in this film) from whom he orders a gigantic meal with obsessive meticulousness. She takes his order, but, nevertheless, he checks that she has written all that he has ordered and in a game of looks and smiles invites her to dinner, which she accepts.
From here on, food and hunger define and delimit the relationship between Alma and Reynolds. The whole film unfolds between noisy breakfasts, silent breakfasts, lunches in restaurants, formal lunches, intimate romantic dinners and explosive break ups at “last suppers”.
It is as if Paul Thomas Anderson wants to starve the spectator by withholding the interiority of his characters to another moment, to make us all exclaim along with Reynolds “I’m hungry!” Which closes the film and make him start all over again.
There are many sources of inspiration and similarities with other films in which the theme of obsession is dealt with. The cyclical conclusion and the restart after an end brings Darren Aronofsky’s Mother to mind, while the presence of a cumbersome female figure that interferes in the relationship between two lovers is a reference to Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”, by whom the director was inspired, for among other things, the construction of the gothic system of his film. Even if, Anderson declared, “the film is my personal tribute to the cinema of Max Ophüls: while I was writing I had Caught in mind, an extraordinary film with Robert Ryan and James Mason, and of course Letter from an Unknown Woman.
Ophüls’camera movements are delicate, light and graceful; gliding over characters and environments, projecting the viewer inside the scene with incredible naturalness. Paul Thomas Anderson works the same way in his film: he lingers on the details, on the small details; on embroidered and hidden messages in the covers of wonderful clothes; on the needle that pierces the fabric; on the fingers worn away by the thimble; on the refined lace of a wedding dress. Anderson takes up and enhances Max Ophüls’ taste for luxury; and just like the great director who inspires him, he hides the obsession to find an equilibrium in a world which picks up upon fragility in the sumptuous beauty, the gorgeous glitter of the clothes. Ophüls tackles his obsession by inserting his characters and their need of lust or love into a circle as described by Schnitzler, while Anderson confronts his by digging into the relational dynamics of the love affair between Reynolds and Alma.
If the cinematographic ancestry of “The Phantom Thread” can be identified with the great films cited by Max Ophüls and Hitchcock, the literary source clearly refers to the queen of the of the psychological gothic novel of the end of the 1800s: Emily Brontë.
Mario Praz on “Wuthering Heights”: “Emily Brontë’s point of view is not immoral but premoral”. The contrast is not the Victorian struggle between good and evil, but between similar and dissimilar. Traditional sex has little to do with the inexorable attraction that draws Heathcliff to Catherine, who is close to the subterranean forces of nature, to the currents, to the magma”.
How can we fail to see in this analysis the similarity between the relationship between the two protagonists of the novel by Emily Bronte and that of Reynolds and Alma. There are no sex scenes in the movie. The most intimate and the closest thing to a sexual encounter between the two is when Reynolds takes Alma’s measurements to make her a dress and possess her skin. Reynolds and Alma do speak, but most of the time they fight, bicker and strive to have the last word. Yet they belong to each other. The magma that defines their interiority is hidden in the industriousness of their public sphere. The shocking behaviour that Alma enacts to keep Reynolds to herself is attributable to that dimension of premorality mentioned by Praz: in what for the common man is immoral, there is all the premoral life of alike souls.
“I am Heathcliff!” cries Catherine to explain how she feels for her beloved. She strongly defends belonging to the same nature, to be of the same substance despite her breeding and social status. Their dissimilarity, however, is underlined by their very names: Heathcliff is only Heathcliff, whereas Catherine is Catherine Earnshaw Linton.
Equally, but the other way round, we have Reynolds and Alma. It is Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock begging Alma, just ‘Alma‘, to kiss him before he becomes ill. This is a love that is appalling and sick, yet deeply authentic and sincere that it feeds upon punishments and rewards; needs and dependence; archetypes and obsessions; old and new ghosts, in a continuous reversal of the roles of victim and executioner for a bond in which joy and suffering are indissoluble.
“I want you lying on your back, helpless, sweet, open to only me, so as to help you,” says Alma to a stricken Reynolds. “And then I want you strong again. You’re not going to die. You might want it, but you’re not going to die. You just need to rest a little”. Alma, the Heathcliff of the “The Phantom Thread”, not only holds her own with the prince of London fashion but forces him to surrender to her. “Reynolds made all my dreams come true. And in return I gave him what he wanted the most – every bit of me”. Mushrooms included.