[written by Cole Clark]
The meal was simple: cut-up sausage, bread with cheese and garlic salt; it was all we had left, and I couldn’t keep waiting for my family to say, “Who’s getting hungry around here?”. So I made dinner, and discovered something about the act of cooking: I felt powerful. Not because of what I’d made, but because it was from me, for others. As someone whose routine dinner prior to quarantine consisted of a 99 cent donut or nothing, cooking does not come naturally to me. I’m not the one who buys groceries, nor the tastemaker for the house. The meal I cooked was exactly the one my mother was going to make, nothing fancy, but after preparing and serving it, my mind drifted to Reynolds Woodcock, the hungry boy with the sophisticated palette. The act of cooking contains the power to nurture, and in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, it’s twisted to reflect an imbalance between the artist and the muse. Food is especially important in the film: Reynolds’ first glance at Alma, his future wife, is over a breakfast of rabbit, poached eggs, scones, butter, cream, jam, sausages, and bacon, which he orders from her. The scene is hardly romantic on the surface, but considering the value Reynolds places on food, she may as well be serving him her heart.
How many films feature romance beginning over a plate of steamed asparagus, or next to a medium-rare Filet mignon? Carol, Goodfellas, and Certified Copy’s versions of the romantic dinner come to mind, but there’s a special place in film for those who fall in love over home cooking. I’m talking about Phantom Thread and the traditional meal, but Remy’s swooning over Paris in Ratatouille is another prime example, as it feels like every meal he makes after discovering the city is in dedication to it. There’s that Spider-Man 2 scene between MJ and Harry Osborne, and who could forget the various sexually-tinged meals of Moonstruck, but there’s rarely a deliberate focus on cooking in a dramatic, actor-focused film. Normally, the characters of Phantom Thread might have a scuffle over dinner, or after catching eyes at an inconspicuous breakfast cafe, sit down and allow their personalities to take over. Reynolds (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), a refined dressmaker in 1950s London, seems to have his life dictated by food. It’s one in a series of highly-specified tastes, like his strict morning routine and hours set aside for work, but even then there’s something curious about the way Reynolds watches others eat, as if he’s waiting for them to blunder. We see his partner before Alma, as she offers him sugar-glazed rolls for breakfast. “No more slodgy things,” he says, ending the conversation and their relationship. It couldn’t only be her failure to please him correctly; the rolls must symbolize her lack of touch with Reynolds. But should they? Day-Lewis plays the scene for a laugh, and it’s hardly odd to see him refuse food at this point in the film. The unresolved feeling comes from the woman. She’s flailing to please him, grasping for the attention she received in the past. In the next scene, she is sent away: Reynolds has total control as the tastemaker of the house, and he is highly specific.
Some time after the slodgy debacle, Alma (played by Vicky Krieps), now a member of Reynolds’ personal and professional life, sits down for breakfast with an especially crunchy piece of buttered toast. Her teeth clatter and the crumbs tumble, but there’s a sense that the excessive noise is all in Reynolds’ head. He appears ready to call it quits, citing breakfast as a “quiet time,” but allows Alma this mistake. His tastes are strong, and she must be given a chance to understand them. For her first real attempt at intimacy, she cooks a dinner that will allow the two of them some alone time, and he hates it, turning Alma’s asparagus with butter into an attack on his refined palette. “I was simply admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you prepared it,” being one of many daggers Reynolds shoots at Alma over dinner. On a separate occasion, she clicks her spoon against her teeth and butters more obscenely loud toast, and in retaliation he embarasses her in front of guests. Their back and forth is conducted around the clock, but the most scathing comments come at mealtime. On a whim, Alma tosses a pinch of poisonous mushroom into Reynolds’ morning coffee (“He needs to slow down a bit”). He becomes dangerously ill, sweating through sheets and spending hours crouched over the toilet, and Alma takes the opportunity to shift the power in her favor, becoming his sole caretaker. Finally removed from his position above Alma, he’s willing to receive help if it’s the difference between life and death. But why take her help, with a house full of dressmakers and a devoted sister who never leaves his side? It’s the lynchpin of their twisted love story, Alma poisoning Reynolds so she can be the one to make him better, demonstrating her worth; he responds, testifying to his love for Alma and proposing marriage upon recovering. Traditional, balanced relationships don’t mesh with his egocentric lifestyle, so it takes either total integration or destruction of that lifestyle to make an impression. Reynolds’ sister, Cyril, sits squarely in the former, as both his business manager and mother figure for situations public and private. Alma can’t join his life like Cyril has, so she destroys it.
In an impeccable finale, Reynolds watches as Alma cooks him an omelette dripping with fatty butter and heaps of poisonous fungus. He knows exactly what she’s thinking of doing to him. “Kiss me my girl before I’m sick,” he coos after taking a bite, and the two embrace. Their inherently imbalanced artist and muse relationship relies on compatibility: the artist needs the muse to create, and the muse receives attention without fuss. For a pair of lovers so literally tied to this dynamic through Reynolds’ dressmaking (Alma is briefly his preferred model), it’s reminiscent of films like Portrait of a Lady on Fire to see the muse take an active role, demanding to be seen despite the artist’s desire. In Phantom Thread, that change in status-quo doesn’t occur naturally, or by a shared understanding of circumstances, but over poisoned eggs.
The artist holds all the cards. They can always find another muse, while the object of affection is left wondering what they could have done wrong. Over the non-poisonous meal of asparagus, Reynolds asks if Alma made it “because you think I don’t need you? I don’t.” Alma’s interjection into Reynolds’ life through cooking is no accident: it’s a way for her to hold the cards. The “attention” Reynolds receives as the muse is simply more lethal. Like most things in his life, the presence of food is all about control. Breakfast will be quiet, dinner will be accompanied by Cyril, and all meals will be made to his specific liking. Outside the kitchen, he is no different. Upon their first meeting, Reynolds takes Alma to his country house to fit her for a dress, lavishing her with attention. “You have no breasts,” he says frankly, eyes darting between needle and canvas. “I know, I’m sorry,” she says. He stops, eyes fixed on Alma: “It’s my job to give you some, if I choose to.” Work, life, food, all are under Reynolds’ control; his glow of affection soon melts away, leaving an entitled, auterial pride that demands everything and allows nothing. She can’t please him as a model, nor as a partner, so she goes for where he’s most vulnerable, and as Reynolds bites into the omelette he knows will force his life to a complete stop, he is devilishly eager to embrace the one who made it for him. It may not be a healthy embrace, but it is savory, knowing what’s about to come.