WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
The writing below is going to contain some opinions that may be unpopular, but I feel it is important to represent this point of view, as I feel many people may share my thoughts on the Phantom Thread.
I am calling this a scene by scene analysis, but as of right now I’m working off of memory, so I’ve skipped the ones that I don’t recall quite well. I’ll be sure to get to these scenes at a later date.
To be clear: The Phantom Thread is a work of art. Daniel Day-Lewis’ final film features an interesting premise with incredible characters that draw you in with their uniqueness. Not only that, but the cinematography and script were both amazing.
And I might as well state this at the beginning: the ending was pretty loony.
The film opens with a quick setup of the setting. Reynolds is a renowned designer, known in particular for his world-class dresses. His house has garnered quite a reputation for being one of the best tailors in town. He has staffed his abode with a number of garment workers, who help manufacture and fit the dresses for their intended wearers. Cyril, seemingly a lifelong companion of Reynolds, helps run the business. The proposed problem: Reynolds is in search of a person to help fit his dresses. He finds his answer in Alma, a waitress he meets at a local breakfast diner. After meeting her the man asks Alma out to dinner, and, upon arriving home, curiously puts her in a dress.
From here, the dynamic between Alma, Cyril, and Reynolds begins to shape. While fitting a dress for Alma, Cyril walks in, unannounced. The viewer immediately notices a slight change in Alma, and she begins to act a bit more reserved, possibly uncomfortable being dressed in something so thin in the presence of this new character. This is evidenced by Reynolds asking Alma to “stand normally”, to which she replies “I am”, leading him to say “stand like how you were standing before…stand straight”. This foreshadows what Alma’s relationship with Cyril will be like for the rest of the movie. As the story progresses it becomes clear that Alma feels unwanted, partially due to Reynolds’ closeness to Cyril. During a dinner near the beginning-middle of the film, a conversation between Alma and Reynolds is interrupted by the chatter of Cyril, who Reynolds immediately turns his attention to. You can see Alma’s smile slowly leave her lips as she notices Reynolds’ attachment to Cyril. She thinks that perhaps she could never get close enough to Reynolds, that Cyril will always be in the way. The waitress views Cyril as a blockade that needs to be removed.
The camera movement during this scene is very telling. It reminds me of Good Will Hunting, the scene when Sean(Robin Williams) talks to Will(Matt Damon) about love in the park. You don’t see Alma’s reaction(or Matt Damon’s) for a little while, and to yourself you wonder what she must be feeling at that moment to be boxed out. Your suspicions are confirmed when her face is finally revealed on frame.
During the first half of the movie, Reynolds is depicted as domineering, always telling Alma what to do, where to stand, and even what to wear. Their first dinner, Reynolds shows his heart without fear, an embodiment of confidence almost to the point of strangeness. This strangeness transfers over to Alma in the middle of the movie, when all of a sudden during dinner Alma asks, or rather, tells Reynolds that he is thirsty, and with a look communicates to him that perhaps he needs her to quench his thirst. Reynolds is evidently surprised by this sudden courage and raises an eyebrow in both amazement and confusion. They end up spending the night together.
In the morning, Alma prepares her breakfast. Reynolds lets her know that she is being too loud. She protests that he is being too picky.
A few days after that, a fair lady arrives in the need of a wedding dress. Alma approaches this new variable and tells her “I live here”. A seemingly random statement, but one that tells a lot about Alma’s state of mind at the time.
Alma, beginning to feel lost, decides in an effort to ward off the insecurities of her self-worth to request the house be emptied in order for her to have a dinner with Reynolds alone. When Reynolds does come home, however, it is evident that he doesn’t feel quite the same about impromptu one on one chats over candlelight as Alma does. Upon arriving back at his house Reynolds freezes, realizing that there is an ominous lack of noise in the hallways. The designer immediately searches for his workers, opening doors and looking through windows for any signs of life. On top of the stairs is Alma, all dressed up, waiting for him to notice her presence. The first thing Reynolds asks her is where Cyril is. He asks that question over and over. She begins to wonder whether this was a good idea. Reynolds takes a bath and gets dressed, and descends to a beaming Alma. She has prepared asparagus with butter. Reynolds claims he likes it. Alma knows he is lying. He always takes his asparagus with oil and salt. Why does he lie? She becomes offended that he feels he needs to.
It is here that her desires are revealed. During an outburst that follows this dinner, Alma states that she set up this meeting because she feels a wall between them when other people are around. They always “get in the way”, those pesky people, and she hated it. These people, of course, refers mostly to Cyril. Alma feels unwanted, she reports, and she wonders why Reynolds doesn’t kick her out.
And here, in the next few scenes, is where things get interesting.
Alma poisons Reynolds. She gathers a poison mushroom from the surrounding greenery and adds it to his tea(or porridge, I couldn’t quite tell which). All of a sudden Reynolds falls ill, and no one seems to know why. Alma rushes to Reynolds aid, crying her heart out with ‘concern’ over her sick lover. She feeds him, warms him, cleans up after him, and nurses him to health. What amazing consideration from a selfless woman.
During his bouts of pain, Reynolds hallucinates his mother in a wedding dress he helped design for her, standing in front of him with a blank look on her face. He seems on death’s door, but he manages to tell her that he misses her caring love. That’s when Alma walks in. This startling juxtaposition tells Reynolds as well as the audience that Alma cares for Reynolds like a mother.
After recovering, Reynolds marries Alma, despite their age gap and differing lifestyles. After getting married, there is a scene where once again Alma, Reynolds, and Cyril go out to dinner. However, unlike last time, the camera shows only Alma and Reynolds in frame and pans to Cyril to show her reaction. This simple camera trick is extremely effective at letting the audience know that Cyril is no longer Reynolds’ caretaker; Alma is. The power in the trifecta’s relationship has shifted to the left side.
To no one’s surprise, he instantly regrets the marriage and goes to Cyril for help. She doesn’t, as he has already alienated her to a great extent.
Finally, we reach the ending. The moment we have all been waiting for. Will Alma’s actions be finally brought to light? Will she receive the hammer of justice she deserves? It seems that way when Reynolds notices her replace a book of indexed poison mushrooms while preparing his food. She soaks the mushrooms in butter, a call once again to her rebellious nature(he hates butter). Even when pouring her husband water, she insists on pouring as loud as possible, an act she knows he despises. She then hides the poison in an omelet and gives it to her victim. This is it, the moment we have all been waiting for. You can tell Reynolds is suspicious of the omelet. Slowly and deliberately, he cuts off a piece and painstakingly stuffs it in his mouth. You begin to question what he is doing. Alma then states that she wants Reynolds to be weak, keeling, and helpless, so that she may help him. Uh oh. Red alert, Reynolds. Get out of there. Instead, what does Reynolds do? He looks his wife in the eye and says to her “Kiss me, my girl, before I am sick”.
Incredible. A doctor is called to their house. Surely the doctor will catch wind of what is happening and put an end to this charade.
No, not at all. It seems that although the doctor knows what is wrong, he does nothing about it.
The movie ends with Reynolds fitting a dress on Alma, and fades to black.
My experience: I was frozen in my seat. I must have missed something. Did he just figure out that he is being poisoned and do nothing about it?
I frantically searched online for an explanation. At least one person agreeing with my view that this was ridiculous. Nothing. Nothing at all.
I couldn’t believe it. I looked around and began to wonder whether I had gone insane.
The only explanation I came across is that Reynolds accepted his place because his one desire in life is to be taken care of once again, to be loved in a way that his mother loved him. Okay, fine. I’ll try to accept that, even though that isn’t a reason to stay with someone who is literally poisoning you. Instead, let’s look at this from another perspective; does Alma truly love Reynolds?
If we are talking about just physical attraction purely, then yes. Even though Reynolds is over a decade her senior, Alma seems to have a strong physical attraction to Reynolds. As for personality, although he is her polar opposite, she enjoys his company for the most part.
However, that only goes to a certain point. It seems that her bigger desire is for Reynolds to love her. This is the desire for any lover, but it is also the desire of those who are extremely insecure. She poisoned Reynolds just to get closer to him. It is obvious that she doesn’t care for the well being of her spouse. All she wants is to be loved, and doesn’t care much for loving. She wants Reynolds to be totally submissive, to have eyes just for her. And for some reason, Reynolds is okay with that. He misses his mother’s loving care, yes, but Alma’s care is nothing close to that. She is greedy and has no regard for the safety of others. She even says to the doctor that it doesn’t matter if Reynolds dies, so long as she knows that she can always be there to take care of him.
So no. Alma doesn’t love Reynolds. Her actions aren’t ‘her own way’ of loving her spouse. She is absolutely deranged and incapable of empathy. She is comforted by his presence, and one can even say she has almost all the requirements of love, but she doesn’t see Reynolds as a person. Rather, she sees him as an object, something to receive affection from. This brings me back to Reynolds, and his decision to stay with Alma. It delivers a twisted and beautiful message about the two’s relationship: it is one where each member of the party only looks out for themselves, and therefore helps each other. Reynolds wants affection, so he allows himself to be poisoned in order to be taken care of. Alma wants Reynolds’ affection, so she poisons him to make him submissive. On the surface, it is a very interesting dynamic. However, it is during these times that one needs to take a step back and ask oneself: “Does this make sense?” If you were poisoned by the person you married, would you immediately come to the understanding that said person was doing it out of love? Would you, despite the fact that you have been arguing with your wife constantly ever since you two married, continue to endure being poisoned over and over again for her love? Would you not get frightened that one day you may eat one of your spouse’s omelettes and never eat again? I know I would. I thought too, that the designer genius Reynolds would be level-headed enough to leave, too. Yet somehow, I’m guessing in the annex of Hollywood, someone decided that this would be a fine ending.
Something that I have had trouble with in the past is allowing my disbelief to be suspended during a movie. For the purpose of a plot, I often tell myself to ignore any logic errors I might see, especially since many of them aren’t even very relevant to the story. Believe me, I tried for this movie. Everything else about this film was amazing; the camerawork, the characters, the setting. The ending is beautiful in its own way too. It just lacks a fundamental basis on logic.
Of course though, if you have your own opinions on this topic, I suggest commenting below. I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on the movie.