Poisonous Meals and Toxic Relationships
by Genna Holtz
In Phantom Thread (2017), it’s 1954 London, England, and siblings Reynolds and Cyril Woodcock run the most prestigious fashion house in the UK. Driven by a psychotic perfectionism, Reynolds delivers dresses exclusively for the best of the best, royalty, socialites, duchesses, and fabulously wealthy of Europe. While the House of Woodcock runs like a well-oiled machine, its success each day is contingent upon the little things, such as tranquility of breakfast. Alma, a waitress Reynolds meets in the country by happenstance, disrupts Woodcock’s reality, questioning his juvenility, aggression, and cold-heartedness. As she turns from muse to lover, their volatile relationship becomes emotionally and verbally abusive. To salvage their life together, Alma utilizes poisonous mushrooms to weaken her husband physically and mentally, to make him recognize the fragility of life itself, and redistribute the balance of power in their relationship. The director, Paul Anderson, shows in his masterfully crafted film that food is love, and when prepared properly, strengthens body and soul.
Anderson helps establish Reynolds’s character with the large meal he orders the first time the audience is introduced to him. Woodcock’s insatiable appetite mirrors his voracious hunger for domination in the fashion industry. In the first interaction between Alma and Reynolds, he demands of her a welsh rabbit, eggs (not too runny), bacon, scones, mustard, jam (not strawberry), tea, and sausages. For this order, Alma dubs him the “hungry boy”, a name which foreshadows how much he will demand of her in their relationship as well as the common childish behavior Reynolds exhibits (Anderson, 2017).
Some of the tensest moments of the film occur at breakfast. The delicate politics of the meal that Alma must discover by trial and error demonstrate Woodcock’s utterly ridiculous and at times asinine particularity. Reynolds claims that he “cannot start the morning with confrontation” and thus everything about the meal must be perfect. Too much movement and too much noise is entirely prohibited at the table. The first time Alma tries to eat in the morning with Reynolds and Cyril, she is brutally chastised for expansively reaching for the tea and for scraping her knife across her toast loudly. The meager food, tea and toast, are as anemic as the conversation at the table and the relationship between the lovers. When Alma calls Reynolds a “spoiled little baby” for having such demands, Cyril explains that “if breakfast isn’t right, it’s very hard for [Reynolds] to recover the rest of the day” (Anderson, 2017). By contrast, later on in the film when the relationship between Reynolds and Alma is in a healthy place, the food is heartier. Reynolds remarks that he is “delighted to have cream with porridge – it’s essential…a little naughty though” (Anderson, 2017). Alma is like the cream in his life, an unusual addition to his fastidious routine that ultimately adds to his happiness. By breaking the precarity of breakfast, Alma breaks through to the softer, scared Woodcock that lies below his intimidating exterior.
Through Phantom Thread, the director posits that food is love, and love is food. Both essentials to life can take many forms, timing is important to each, and there are preferences involved. One of the ways that this is demonstrated is that Alma tries, in her own love language, to love Reynolds by cooking an intimate dinner for the two of them, telling Cyril, “I am trying to love him the way I want to” (Anderson, 2017). He does not reciprocate in the same way and indicates this by adding a ton of salt to the asparagus she has prepared, using his hands to eat in an undignified way, and refusing to make eye contact at the table. He is a complete bully, a child who is so selfish that he doesn’t have the decency or interpersonal intelligence to recognize Alma’s efforts. Upon Reynolds’s rude reaction, Alma criticizes Reynolds by saying that nothing about his lifestyle is “normal or natural, everything is a game, I don’t eat this, I don’t drink that” (Anderson, 2017). By framing the restrictions Reynolds places on her life through the lens of food, audiences better grasp the use of food as a communication device in the film.
When the tensions that have built over breakfasts and Alma’s dinner reach their peak, Alma chooses to poison Reynolds. She laces the tea Reynolds drinks at breakfast with mushrooms because she knows that if he realizes his timeline isn’t endless, he will appreciate her. After days of terrible sickness and relying on Alma entirely, Reynolds realizes exactly what Alma wished, and he proposes marriage to her. In his proposal he says, “A house that doesn’t change is a dead house” to show the intrinsic link between Reynolds the man and Woodcock the artist. By reinventing Reynolds when she sees their relationship becoming stale by pushing him to the edge of death, Alma saves the house of Woodcock from dying.
Alma and Reynolds’s first breakfast as husband and wife is a breath of fresh air – she is messy and makes lots of noise, but he gets through it without a harsh word. But by the time they get go to a big dinner at a fancy Christmas celebration months later, there is again emotional distance between them (indicated physically by the fact that they sit far away from each other at the table). Scenes in which their relationship is happy and stable have warm, natural lighting, pastel colors, and vibrant tones. But by contrast, the more Reynolds abuses Alma, the more dimly lit and dark scenes become. The frames are also tighter to show that Alma feels constricted by her lover’s tight grasp on the quotidian activities of her life. Alma is desperate to find her place in his home and often compares this effort to a game. When, at the height of one of their disagreements, they play an actual board game, he accuses her of cheating and she responds, “I’m not cheating, I don’t need to cheat” (Anderson, 2017). The irony in this situation lies in the fact that in order to win or make fair the “game” of their life together, Alma must “cheat” by using mushrooms to tame the egos that torment her husband.
At the height of their second major fight, instead of putting a little bit of crushed up mushroom in his tea, Alma puts a whole mushroom into an omelet for Reynolds, and prepares it directly in front of him. There is nothing clandestine about her procedure like the last time, and the interaction is almost erotic. After intense eye contact in consecutive point of view shots, Reynolds inhales his first bite and Alma says, “I want you flat on your back, helpless, open tender, with only me to help, and then I want you strong again, you’re not going to die, you might wish you were going to die but you’re not, you need to settle down a little” (Anderson, 2017). Instead of the uncontrolled rampage the audience half expects, Reynolds breaks into a grin and exclaims, “Kiss me my girl, before I’m sick” (Anderson, 2017). This withdrawal of control is monumental for their relationship and indicates that an equilibrium of power has finally been achieved.
Paradoxically, Alma uses unhealthful food to make Reynolds well again. She accepts this role because she understands that Reynolds would “always be waiting for [her], it would only require [her] patience” (Anderson, 2017). In the last dialogue of the film, Reynolds whispers to Alma, “Right now we’re here, and I’m getting hungry” (Anderson, 2017). This indicates that there has finally been a redistribution of power that they can both accept. He knows full well and embraces Alma’s use of poison to slow him down when he needs to be slowed.
Alma uses food to sustain her relationship with Reynolds and to balance love and hate. By weakening her husband and committing him to her care, she temporarily subdues the inter-racial, intercultural, gender dichotomies in their marriage. Poisonous mushrooms provide a temporary relief to the malaise in their relationship and ultimately allow both parties to fulfill their duties to the best of their ability.
Anderson, Paul Thomas, director. Phantom Thread. Focus Features, 2017.