By Mónica Delgado
In Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson builds a game of correspondences through an elemental figure, food as a life drive. In its first minutes, the act of eating becomes a situation which defines sensibilities, attentions, rites and goodbyes. But this series of acts surrounding food (which draw the character of designer Reynolds Woodcock and his relationship with his new lover) is not completely explicit, but carefully inserted with an ingenious subtlety inside the first frivolous layer of fashion’s world.
The first encouner between Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps) happens in a rural area restaurant. The hunger, evident in Woodcock as he orders a long list of different food for breakfast, is nothing other than his strident way of announcing a kind of need, which supersedes another kind of sexual drive that will be hidden throughout the whole film. The necessity of the dressmaker, if maybe a primal one, is to satiate a physiological desire, something that is perceived by Alma as something to be considered (a vulnerability, maybe) in her process of seduction. Thus, hunger turns to libido, at least in the promise of satisfaction or consummation.
Hunger, also, in this phantom thread, is a masculine quality, where the woman cooks and observes (or let herself be seen eating). She just complies with the desire. Thus, this necessity or demand acquires a primal character: The oral demand of being fed is directed to this Other that waits and complies. And Paul Thomas Anderson takes this idea of Freudian necessities to enter into the amorous relation between Woodcock and Alma.
If in Greek and Roman mythologies, divine beings meet in banquets and parties not only to serve a physical need, but to affirm a celebration, in Phantom Thread eating and its rites are related to extensions of Woodcock’s mood, which dominates the possibility that eating become an act or pleasure for others. As the story moves forward, Paul Thomas Anderson places the characters in conflict, always in function of this primal desire of eating. Alma starts showing little by little the keys that will make possible the conquest of appetite’s demand. That’s why, for moments, Phantom Thread acquires the quality of an intelligent black comedy and a fragile war of the sexes, like old American classical comedies, but subverted here by unhealthy or perverse motivations, like if they were the natural way of love consummation.
When this Pygmalion played by Day-Lewis “presents” Alma to society through a visit to a luxury restaurant, he flatters her saying “you’re beautiful” to then declare “you’re making me very hungry”. In in the breakfast of the initial encounter, the “you’re making me very hungry” is merely declared by phrases, here the life drive that united them is already declared, and will become a weapon that Alma will use constantly through different preparations that will make the dressmaker become a child, assisted by the cares and love of the maternal breast. The formula of love that Alma finds: nurture and become nurtured.
The meticulous treatment of Phantom Thread takes the point of view of Alma. And Thomas Anderson proposes this through first close-ups in candlelight, as a way of confession, before a doctor that will become a recurrent character towards the nature of love and food stablished by the lovers.
Like in Inherent Vice, the female narrators are the ones who move the intention of the tale, sublimate some characters and allow imagining the surroundings through the intimacy of these experiences. In this way, this phantom threat could only be described from this feminine gaze, that sees, produce and define meanings, even in that detail that Woodcock describes: the photo of his death mother always inside his suit in a secret compartment. The sexual drive translated in a dish of mushrooms with butter or the raw figure of love that slowly kills. Or the love that is born and stays alive by pure artifice. That’s how Phantom Thread becomes the most lucid interpretation that recent cinema has given on the construction of love and the strange ways of its independence.