In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which was nominated for six Oscars this week, food is used as a weapon in a struggle for control. The breakfast table in the film’s early moments is Chekhov’s rifle on the wall. Dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) reaction to morning sweet pastries, borne by his soon-to-be-former muse, offers up a clue in the first minutes that the next two hours won’t be simply a period piece about midcentury couture. That first meal of the day sets up everything to come in a film as gorgeous as it is gripping.
Like Water for Chocolate or Julie & Julia may come to mind when you think of a “food movie,” but Phantom Thread has nothing in common with those films. Set within the world of high fashion in 1950s England, the film’s portrayal of food, as the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner has also noted, is pivotal but also subdued. The Second World War was over, but food rationing continued during the first four years of the decade. As one article, for the British history site HistoricUK.Com, puts it: “The 1950s were the age of Spam fritters (now making a comeback!), salmon sandwiches, tinned fruit with evaporated milk, fish on Fridays, and ham salad for high tea every Sunday. The only way to add flavor to this bland cooking was with tomato ketchup or brown sauce.” Great Britain was hardly a moveable feast in the middle of the 20th century. As a result, there are no excesses of colorful cakes, like in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, and no lavish dinner scenes obsessing over ingredients, as in American Psycho.
Anderson’s latest is not about food, per se, but the movement of the story is driven by its characters’ appetites: What they eat, and how — and by whom — their food is prepared. Food is never used as a prop. Every beat is blocked with purpose; consumption, and being consumed, is central to the film’s final act. It is at the center of how the two main characters, played by Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps, battle for control.
When Woodcock first meets Krieps’s Alma, early in the film, she’s a server at a quaint little restaurant somewhere in the English countryside. He orders Welsh rarebit with a poached egg, but doesn’t want that too runny. He also wants bacon, scones, cream, jam (just not strawberry), some sausages for good measure, and smoky lapsang souchong tea. He wants Alma to remember his order, not just write it down. It might seem like he’s flirting, but in fact, he’s gauging whether she’d cater to his every whim. She responds by passing him a note addressed to the “hungry boy.” The test is passed. Later that night, the pair go to dinner at a proper restaurant. Woodcock watches her eat, then tells her to take off her lipstick at the table.
There are two locations featured most in the film: a five-story, seven-bedroom Georgian townhouse on Fitzroy Square that’s on the market for around $20 million, and that restaurant. We don’t find out much about that place, what its history or connection to the characters might be.
It’s a handsome Art Deco spot, Woodcock’s regular joint. When his sister and business partner Cyril (played brilliantly by Lesley Manville) joins them at dinner, Woodcock tells her he’s taken the liberty of ordering her steak tartare. It might seem like a small gesture, but, again, there are no wasted seconds. Cyril’s reaction leads the viewer to believe that she’s displeased; that her controlling brother, to whom she plays therapist throughout the film, made the decision because he needs to be in control. Cyril seems to be the only one who truly understands how the celebrated designer works, so she puts up no protest.
But it isn’t until the following scene at the breakfast table, on what we can only assume is the morning after a nice night out, when food reveals cracks in Woodcock’s tight, small world. This scene shows the depth and darkness of his needs: If one thing is wrong, Cyril says, “it’s difficult for him to recover.” We find this out, of course, after things do go wrong: Namely, Alma buttering and chewing her toast too loudly. Anderson amplifies the scraping of the butter to put us in the dressmaker’s place, so we feel how little he can stand any slight disturbance. Woodcock shouts that there’s “entirely too much movement at breakfast,” like a petulant child. By the end of the meal, Alma and the viewer know it’s doomed to be a difficult and edgy affair.
Similarly, when Alma tries to impress Woodcock with a quiet homemade dinner, things fall apart. He over-salts the asparagus on his plate, then complains that he likes his with oil and salt, not butter. Again, the choreography of the meal exposes Reynolds’s pathological grip on the world around him, and those in it. Alma disturbs his schedule and routine. Woodcock’s anxiety, deep at the core of the life he built around his preferences and needs, manifests most when food is in the frame.
While all dining is a minefield in Phantom Thread, no one item plays a more central role in the film than mushrooms. Again, Anderson’s striking shots of Alma and Woodcock’s housekeeper foraging for mushrooms in the woods of his estate foreshadow and delight. The housekeeper cautions her against picking poisonous mushrooms, giving her a book about which varieties may sicken or even kill those who partake.
Soon, we find Alma frantically flipping through its yellowed pages in a scene like something out of a Hitchcock film. It’s dizzying. Woodcock is deteriorating rapidly, and as viewers, we can only guess that Alma’s intentions are dark. The tension, at this point, is palpable. I found myself holding my breath. Alma wants control, and the mushrooms are her way to get it.
There are a number of poisonous mushrooms in the north of England, from toadstools to deadly webcaps to death caps. In 2008, Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, along with three members of his family, found this out the hard way. After picking a batch they’d found on his brother-in-law’s estate in the Scottish Highlands, the writer was sure they were the same mushrooms he’d gathered as a child, so the family brought them home and served them with parsley and butter. At first, Evans, his wife, and the other members of the family thought their illness would pass. Within two days, it was obvious that wasn’t the case.
“In the beginning, not only did I think I might die,” Evans told The Telegraph in 2011, after receiving a kidney transplant due to the damage the poisoning caused his body, “but I kind of wanted to because it was so violent, so grim.” People who experience mushroom poisoning suffer vomiting, diarrhea, fever, hallucinations, and feelings of impending doom. After Alma adds mushrooms to Woodcock’s tea, he experiences all of those things, including a visit from the ghost of his mother.
Alma doesn’t poison Woodcock to kill him; she does so to loosen his white-knuckled grip on so much of his world. In Anna Tsing’s staggering ethnography, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Tsing positions the valuable matsutake mushroom as a generative object (in this case, there is the economy of the matsutake) nurtured by decay — the world the matsutake enables, and reflects, is one that allows for what she calls “collaborative survival.”
Is that not also true of Alma and Woodcock, and the mushrooms that set them on their ultimate path? During his illness, Alma makes sure it’s her, and only her, who nurses Reynolds back to health. She knows the cause of his sickness, since she’s to blame for it, and she knows that he’ll recover in time. The plan works so well that the first thing Woodcock does after he recovers is propose to Alma, despite claiming early on he won’t ever marry.
As the movie winds toward its conclusion, the mushrooms remain rooted in Alma and Reynolds’s intimate landscape. Alma makes him an omelet with poisonous mushrooms, drowning in butter, an ingredient Reynolds claims earlier to not enjoy. We watch as she prepares the meal, knowing exactly what she’s planning for her husband. He watches her, too.
With Woodcock, our gaze is trained perfectly on the final reveal. These last moments, while I won’t spoil them here, expose just how unexpected a film Phantom Thread has been all along. Taut as a high wire, the final scene — about an omelet, for God’s sake — is cemented as one of the best food moments in film history. It ties the film together in an exquisite and painful climax. It isn’t nearly so shocking as Glenn Close boiling a rabbit in Fatal Attraction, but it is surely as visceral. This single dish announces exactly what we have been watching, rapt: a stylish erotic thriller about consumption and control.
Jason Diamond is the author of Searching for John Hughes (WilliamMorrow/HarperCollins) and founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
Editor: Greg Morabito
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