This is the second of two pieces on Phantom Thread. See Sam Ankenbauer’s different take in the previous post.
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The articulation of female pleasure in The Phantom Thread creates an opening through which Alma can undermine the ruinous masculinity undergirding the House of Woodcock. The folds of Alma’s fabrics, despite being embroidered by a despot, nevertheless retain her “creative energies,” which she later harnesses to reassert her agency. Learning of a local species of poisonous mushrooms, Alma decides to turn Woodcock’s physical exploitation of her body against his own, an alimentary inversion of Woodcock’s corporeal means of control.
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After Reynolds Woodcock, the eccentric couturier of Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film, The Phantom Thread, enjoys a dinner of custard fish with an unassuming waitress named Alma, a local immigrant (presumably from Germany), he invites her to try on some of his work. Alma then strips down to her undergarments, whereupon Woodcock lays several pieces of differently colored fabric on her shoulders, scrutinizing which one he likes best. He eventually settles on plum. Then, suddenly, Woodcock’s sister Cyril, who, as if divining the arrival of a new model, mysteriously appears to record Alma’s measurements. “And who’s this lovely creature making the house smell so nice?” she asks. She needs only one whiff to determine Alma’s scent. “Sandalwood and rosewater,” Cyril confirms, “Sherry and … lemon juice?” Alma uncomfortably nods. “We had fish for dinner.” In this early sequence, then, Anderson brings together food and fashion. Alma aromatically “wears” the trace of her meal just as she will later wear Woodcock’s plum dress, which looks just as decadent as that custard sauce must have tasted. A difficult film, The Phantom Thread surely eludes straightforward analysis. Yet an examination of the ways in which Anderson’s sartorial film interweaves clothing and consuming offers an important “thread” to its interpretive unfurling. What begins with Woodcock’s exploitation of Alma’s body through cloth unravels in Alma’s manipulation of Reynolds’s body by way of his intestines. This corporeal interplay between exhibition and digestion, furthermore, upends conventional onscreen portrayals of gender roles.
The film begins at dawn with shots of Woodcock grooming himself: shaving, trimming, moussing, and rouging (figs. 1, 2, 3). Like a strip of fabric, Woodcock is seen tailoring his appearance, priming his “outfit” before beginning his day. This brief montage is preceded by several views of the exquisite Georgian townhouse, “the House of Woodcock,” where Reynolds and Cyril – accompanied by a fleet of seamstresses – run their elite boutique in postwar London. Based on the mid-twentieth-century ateliers of European couture, especially on the studio-residence of the Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga in Paris, House of Woodcock specializes in exquisite dress worn exclusively by aristocrats and princesses (figs. 4, 5). The ornate, orderly interiors of this fashion palace look just as manicured as Woodcock’s spruced visage. This inside-outside parallelism intimates a synergy between surfaces and depths, between façades and inner linings in The Phantom Thread. Indeed, an early shot shows a seamstress stitching Woodcock’s brand label, which, of course, reads “Woodcock London,” on the under collar of a stylish jacket (fig. 6). The couturier leaves his trace in his cloth; he weaves himself into the garments of his female models just as his meticulously arranged residence entwines its orderly aesthetic into him. This opening scene, then, reveals how fashion, in fact, is as much about exterior as it is interior design.
Destabilizing a fixed inside-outside binary concerning appearance, Anderson cinematically enacts a conclusion drawn by the avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren on matters of dress. In an unpublished article, “The Psychology of Fashion,” Deren suggests that clothing is a projection of one’s individuality, a sartorial exhibition of the psyche – much like the well-ordered House of Woodcock is an extension of Reynolds’s fastidious personality. “A woman’s clothes serve as an outlet for her creative energies … she uses those energies to create … some image she has of herself; a method of projection of her inner attitudes.…”1 The act of dressing oneself is an exercise in self-fashioning; clothes become our second skin. Deren’s “fashion advice?” media theorist Giuliana Bruno asks.2 “The closer the outward appearance to the inner state of mind, the better dressed.”3 A similar elision between external and internal modes of self-expression occurs in The Phantom Thread. The appearances and identities of Anderson’s characters exist in a constant state of enfoldment in which their inside spaces become their outsides and their outside spaces become their insides. “An exterior always on the outside, an interior always on the inside,” writes Gilles Deleuze in The Fold, a treatise of “sartorial philosophy” that interlinks body and spirit, corporeality and subjectivity, “pleats of matter” and “folds of the soul.”4 The folds of fabric are the literal points of contact where material meets skin. For Deleuze, then, pleats become the storehouses of our “creative energies” animated by dress. It is precisely this psychic, individuating power housed in the folds of clothing – of women’s clothing – that Woodcock seeks to consume in The Phantom Thread.
“You have no breasts,” Woodcock says to Alma as he stretches a measuring tape up and down her torso. “It’s my job to give you some … if I choose” (fig. 7). The dressmaker sees his craft not as a canvas on which others can project a creative identity, but, quite oppositely, as the clothier’s form of control. Needlework in The Phantom Thread becomes an extension of male power over female bodies. “You can sow almost anything into the canvas of a coat,” Woodcock says, “secrets, coins, words, little messages.” Sadistically, Reynolds derives pleasure from sewing pieces of himself into the very (second) skin of his luxuriously gowned models. Their tight-fitting garments, then, become metonymies for Woodcock’s attempt to suffocate female identity – hence, the phantasmal title of Anderson’s film. The “phantom thread” stitching these vestments together is Woodcock’s shadowy presence penetrating itself into the sartorial psyche of his models; he burrows himself in the folds of their identities. “I started to hide things in linings of garments,” he says, “things that only I knew were there.” This secret knowledge feeds his perceived dominance over his models. Snakelike, Woodcock stealthily attempts to strangle female autonomy.
Tellingly, Reynolds’s aggressively masculinized surname – Woodcock – proceeds from a late-night texting conversation between Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, who claims The Phantom Thread will be his last picture, cracking “dick jokes.”5 This phallic name, kidding aside, illuminates a crucial point of this article. It suggests how identity is a simultaneously inward and outward projection. The crude placement of the word “wood” next to the word “cock” orthographically externalizes Reynolds’s toxic masculinity. Like a frock, Woodcock “wears” his surname; it texturizes itself in his chauvinistic, sexually possessive behavior. Indeed, discarding his live-in companions whenever he wearies of them, Woodcock treats his models like mannequins, like canvases on which to project his own visage. A woman, for Reynolds, is but a shop window – a vitrine – through which he ogles himself: his own phantasmal self-image lingering somewhere within the dress, within her. In Woodcock’s eyes, each of his “handmade” models become a living, breathing architectural ensemble of the House of Woodcock.
Unsurprisingly, then, Woodcock’s temper flares when he is asked to pose for a photo shoot. The couturier refuses to become the object of an other’s gaze; he resists ceding his authority as the gazer. This reluctance is especially evident in a shot of Woodcock peering through a peephole at Alma as she models one of his dresses for a gaggle of fashion critics (fig. 8). This image harkens back to the illicit “key-hole” shots of early silent cinema in which male characters – these “peeping Toms” – unknowingly spied on females to the pleasure of male audiences. Participating in a broader patriarchal discourse of male spectatorship and female objectification, Woodcock’s voyeuristic gaze in The Phantom Thread seeks to heel what Deren would call Alma’s “creative energies” to his aggressive masculinity. Only he (supposedly) can “give” her breasts. “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other,” writes Laura Mulvey in her watershed article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” “bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”6 The continual shots of Woodcock admiring an immobilized Alma in his sumptuous fabrics point to her fabrication, that is, her alteration into a stand-in – a mannequin – of male desire (fig. 9). As if recalling Mulvey directly, Alma begins The Phantom Thread by saying: “and I have given him most what he desires in return … every piece of me.” Seemingly, Alma yields to a woman’s “traditional exhibitionist role” – a “to-be-looked-at-ness” – forcibly engendered by a “determining male gaze.”7
Yet before professing her surrender to Woodcock’s sartorial designs, Alma says: “Reynolds has made my dreams come true.” Curiously, a film that unspools a narrative of female subjugation through cloth begins with its female protagonist, who is first encountered in an indeterminate location aside a crackling fire, declaring her personal fulfillment. This ostensible contradiction is explained by a self-penned addendum to her 1973 article “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.’” Here, Mulvey suggests that even though cinema is unavoidably structured around male identification, female viewers (including herself) are not precluded from their own “deep-rooted and complex” viewing pleasure, which, ultimately, can challenge and question the patriarchal superstructure in which cinema exists.8 Similarly, in The Phantom Thread, Alma discovers her own sort of “viewing pleasure” in modeling Woodcock’s seventeenth-century Flemish lace and the like. “I never really liked myself,” she says. “I thought my shoulders were too wide, and my neck was skinny like a bird. And I had no breasts.… But in his work, I become perfect. I feel just right.” The articulation of female pleasure in The Phantom Thread creates an opening through which Alma can undermine the ruinous masculinity undergirding the House of Woodcock. The folds of Alma’s fabrics, despite being embroidered by a despot, nevertheless retain her “creative energies,” which she later harnesses to reassert her agency. Learning of a local species of poisonous mushrooms, Alma decides to turn Woodcock’s physical exploitation of her body against his own, an alimentary inversion of Woodcock’s corporeal means of control.
Fittingly, then, The Phantom Thread centralizes a recurring motif of food from its outset. The image preceding that early shot of a seamstress sowing Woodcock’s insignia into a jacket – that is, branding its future wearer with the House of Woodcock’s trademark – is a close-up of a steaming cup of coffee. That shot, in turn, is followed by an image of one of Woodcock’s sketches for a new outfit, whereupon Anderson’s camera cuts to an image of freshly glazed scones. These establishing shots give way to Woodcock’s overflowing breakfast table, a major site of his creative output (figs. 10, 11, 12, 13). Here, just as subtly as Woodcock’s calloused, pin-pricked fingers weave cloth, Anderson interlaces food and fashion through the fabric of film. This seamlessly fashioned montage sequence exposes the pleated quality of film itself – a material fabric that demands editorial sewing in order to acquire meaning. The lush aesthetic of The Phantom Thread, further texturized by Johnny Greenwood’s elegant score, is an exercise in sartorial cinematography.
This breakfast scene also incites a conflict after which Woodcock dismisses his most recent live-in mannequin, Johanna. “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation,” he hisses. “I’m delivering the dress today, and I can’t take up space with a confrontation.” His outburst, tellingly, is sparked by an unwelcome offer of a scone. This seemingly minute incident inspires Woodcock to take a trip to the country, where, at a seaside café, he meets Alma – a waitress, a literal server of food. After he catches Alma’s eye, she trips and, composing herself, sheepishly smiles back at him (fig. 14). Her stumble signals someone who is not nearly as put together as Woodcock, someone who isn’t stitched as tightly. Instantly, then, Alma strikes Reynolds as a victim for the making. Woodcock’s appetite to remodel Alma expresses itself gastronomically; he orders an enormous meal of poached eggs, bacon, sausages, scones, cream, and jam – “not strawberry.” This restaurant scene exposes a longstanding correspondence between gustatory and erotic appetites. Hunger, besides its obvious functionality, is a driver of human sexuality: a carnal invitation for pleasure, excess, and intoxication. For her part, Alma satiates all of Woodcock’s base appetites. She brings him abundant trays of food only after agreeing to join him for dinner, a date which ends in Alma trying on his dresses. “You look beautiful,” Woodcock later says to her. “You’re making me extremely hungry.”
A less appreciated aspect about the activity of eating, aside from its relation to sensuality, is its intrinsic liminality. The act of food consumption begins in the mouth, an orifice technically outside the body, and concludes in the stomach – an intestinal inside space. Such nuance gives rise to the differing terms “ingestion” and “digestion.” In this light, then, food subverts the fixed categories of interior and exterior space in a similar fashion as fashion itself does. If clothing in The Phantom Thread becomes a site of self-projection, so too does the stomach. Woodcock’s intensely curated diet of lightly buttered asparagus, steak tartare, and wild mushrooms signals a palate that stylizes itself as tastefully as his painstakingly coordinated wardrobe of bowties, ascots, and peacoats. The finicky way Reynolds chooses food, like he does his own attire – “not strawberry,” he emphasizes when ordering jam – signals his non-utilitarian approach to both cuisine and clothing. Meals, for Woodcock, become opportunities for self-fashioning; an alimentary form of couture in the gastric House of Woodcock. In The Phantom Thread, Anderson suggests that we are what we wear just as much as we are what we eat. Identity becomes a matter of pleats and plates. The folds of fabrics that store our “creative energies,” enmeshing our physical and psychic sense of self, act analogously to the morsels of food that later return to shape us – often unpleasantly in forms of odor, flatulence, and, in Woodcock’s case, vomit.
After Alma prepares Reynolds a surprise dinner, The Phantom Thread’s plot begins bursting at its seams. Their feast devolves into an explosive confrontation (a food fight?) in which Alma preempts Woodcock’s impending dismissal of her services. “I have no idea what I’m doing here. I’m standing around like an idiot waiting for you,” she says. “Waiting for you to get rid of me.” Alma then storms off before Anderson’s camera cuts to her yet undisclosed location by a fireside, where she says: “Sometimes it’s good for him to slow down his steps a little.” The camera then returns to Alma scanning a section of a cookbook that reads “poisonous mushrooms.” She proceeds to add a teaspoon of toxin to Woodcock’s breakfast. His ingestion of poisonous spores, naturally, expresses itself corporeally. Later that day, Woodcock, losing his composure like Alma before him, collapses in front of his seamstresses and tarnishes an irreplaceable wedding gown. He rushes to the bathroom, where he begins violently vomiting. The sprouts come back to haunt Woodcock. The Phantom Thread, momentarily, becomes a story about phantom food. Figuratively and literally, Alma disrupts the House of Woodcock.
Crumpled like a discarded piece of fabric, Woodcock is then seen lying in bed being watched by Alma (fig. 15). The gaze of power here has been reversed. Admiring what she has wrought, Alma becomes the gazer. This optical inversion signals a shift in the power dynamics of The Phantom Thread. Alma reasserts the agency Woodcock attempted to deny her through fabric by exploiting Woodcock’s bowels through food. She begins fashioning him abdominally. Two close-up shots emblematize this corporeal turnabout. A concluding shot of Alma’s hands slicing her deadly mushrooms riffs off an earlier close-up of Woodcock’s calloused fingertips measuring Alma’s dress (figs. 16, 17). The cooking knife and sewing needle foregrounded in these shots become metonymies for the gender politics of The Phantom Thread. Armed with her cookbook, Alma bends Woodcock to her will; her previous career as a waitress acquires a lethal resonance in her present.
Having recovered, Reynolds proposes to Alma, saying: “A house that doesn’t change is a dead house.” His proposal is a direct result of Alma’s gastral designs. The waitress immobilizes the couturier into a mannequin now fit for her utilization. Uncoincidentally, Alma’s way of describing her pacification of Woodcock even reflects this notion of motion: “It’s good for him to slow down his steps.…” She becomes the mobile actor rendering a man into what Mulvey calls a “bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” Indeed, it is whenever Woodcock steps out of line that Alma returns to her poisonous mushrooms to heel – to hem – him back to her control. “I want you flat on your back; helpless, tender, open,” she says toward the end of the film. “With only me to help. And then I want you strong again.” Her final declaration ironically echoes Woodcock’s earlier promises to “make” her beautiful. By The Phantom Thread’s end, Alma becomes its all-powerful fashion designer; a master chef.
The unraveling of fixed inside-outside binaries in Anderson’s decadently enigmatic film allows for a similar untangling of overdetermined onscreen gender roles. The exploitative fabrication of Alma by way of cloth unspools into her gastric assault on patriarchy. The hyper-charged masculinity of The Phantom Thread, then, is curbed by a reinvigorated femininity that enables Alma to take pleasure in her pleats. “I’ll take care of your dresses,” she vows at the end of Anderson’s film, “keeping them from dust, and ghosts, and time” – that is, from other shadowy male phantoms. The Phantom Thread’s interplay of food and fashion – of sartorial digestion and alimentary exhibition – ends with Alma by that very fireside cradling a nauseous Woodcock, who, now lost in the folds of her dress, begs for sustenance. “Right now we’re here … and I’m getting hungry.” The House of Woodcock has been refashioned into the House of Alma.
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All images are screenshots from the film.
- Maya Deren, “The Psychology of Fashion,” in The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography, eds. Vèvè A. Clark, Millicent Hodson, Catrina Neiman, Vol. 1, pt. 1 (New York City: Anthology of Film Archives, 1988), 435. [↩]
- Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 27. [↩]
- Deren, 435. [↩]
- Gilles Deleuze, The Fold Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 35. See also Bruno, “Pleats of Matter, Folds of the Soul,” Log no.1 (Fall 2003): 115-116. [↩]
- Kevin Jagernauth, ‘“Phantom Thread’: Paul Thomas Anderson Says ‘Reynolds Woodcock’ Was a Joke Name That Stuck,” The Playlist (December 20, 2017): https://theplaylist.net/phantom-thread-reynolds-woodcock-joke-20171220/. [↩]
- Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Film Theory & Criticism: Introductory Readings, eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 8th edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016): 621. [↩]
- Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 624. [↩]
- Mulvey, “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by King Vidor’s Duel of the Sun (1946),” Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 29. [↩]