Warning: This post contains spoilers for the third act of Phantom Thread
Power is the phantom force affecting the relationships at the center of Paul Thomas Anderson’s acclaimed period drama Phantom Thread, which last week received six Oscar nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture. Each of the three points that constitute the movie’s odd love triangle — esteemed London fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, a Best Actor nominee for what he’s said will be his final screen performance), his stern sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville, who picked up a surprise Best Supporting Actress nod), and the interloper in their midst, Alma (breakout star Vicky Krieps) — is locked in a subtle, but no less serious struggle to be the one in control of their collective destiny.
And Anderson gracefully depicts how this power dynamic shifts as the story unfolds; early on in the film, Reynolds seems to wield ultimate authority, choosing which dresses, and people, he wants to share his home and workspace with. He’s the one, for instance, who opens the door for Alma to leave her former job waitressing at a rural restaurant and enter the world of ’50s haute couture as his latest muse and model. But no sooner is she inside his luxurious townhouse that she realizes Cyril has the real run of the place, keeping the Woodcock production line humming along and quietly managing her brother’s whims and mood swings, not to mention the revolving door of young women who hope to become the keepers of Reynolds’s heart.
For much of the film, Alma is at a serious disadvantage in trying to influence a sibling relationship that has outlasted any conventional love affair. Which is why, rather than be meekly dismissed like so many of the women before her, she makes an unconventional power play of her own. Late in the movie, Alma harvests some poisonous mushrooms that are growing nearby the Woodcock estate and stirs them into her lover’s tea, creating a brew that’s strong enough to put him flat on his back, but stops short of ending his life. During his convalescence, she remains a constant presence by his bedside, effectively supplanting Cyril has his guardian. She even appears to receive the posthumous approval of his long-dead mother in that regard; in his fungi-induced hallucinatory state, Reynolds sees mommy dearest’s phantom in the room, silently observing as Alma bustles about in the foreground. When he recovers, Woodcock approaches his poisoner with a remarkable (for him) proposal: marriage.
“That idea came to me early on,” Anderson tells Yahoo Entertainment about Alma’s poison mushroom stunt and how it tips the household’s balance of power in her direction. “This notion of a powerful man becoming weak — how does that happen? It happens through acts of God or exertions of other forces outside of his own. He’s certainly not going to put himself in a vulnerable position! It’s only when some outside force that’s stronger than him is able to dismantle it that he recognizes his need and the fact that, if he can’t find it, he’s going to die a cold, black death.”
Funnily enough, Anderson wasn’t the only 2017 filmmaker to use deadly mushrooms as a third-act plot device. Sofia Coppola’s Civil War-set drama, The Beguiled, ends with the women at a Virginia boarding school poisoning the Union soldier they’ve been protecting (Colin Farrell) at a dinner thrown in his ostensible honor. (It’s an ending that Coppola preserved from the original Thomas P. Cullinan novel, as well as the 1971 film version starring Clint Eastwood.) “I haven’t seen The Beguiled,” Anderson admits when we tell him about the coincidental relationship between Coppola’s movie and his own. “I saw the original film a million years ago, but didn’t even remember there was a mushroom poisoning in that. It has a long history in movies and books; there’s a great Shirley Jackson book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, that’s got some mushroom poisoning in it. And I’ve read some unfortunate stories about real people who accidentally poisoned themselves. It can really mess you up if you pick the wrong kind of mushrooms!”
And Alma’s use of poison isn’t a one-and-done situation, either. In the film’s closing moments, she cooks up a mushroom omelet dinner for her husband — who has been chafing under her attempts to tweak his rigid sense of routine — and presents it to him. This time around, though, Woodcock is in on the joke, an impish grin serving as his signal that he knows all about the meal’s secret ingredient. According to Anderson, that smile is Day-Lewis’s direct answer to Daniel Plainview’s immortal “I drink your milkshake” moment from There Will Be Blood, the role that won the actor the second of his three Oscar statues. “They speak to the differences between the two movies,” he explains. “The milkshake moment is a big ending moment to a big performance. Here, it’s a smile that we get at a dinner table — a small look between two lovers. It also speaks to the exterior versus interior aspect of the two movies. Blood was wide open spaces with oil derricks blowing up and things gushing all over the place; Phantom Thread is all small spaces, corners, and staircases.”
Day-Lewis himself had the smile written into the script after a memorable story meeting his director. “I had been writing and presenting the script to Daniel as we went along, and when I reached the end, I presented that last scene to him as Alma presents it to Reynolds: ‘I’m serving you a poisonous mushroom omelet: What are you going to do?’ And he smiled just like he did in the movie! I think what we created was this situation of a staring contest between two lovers each saying, ‘I dare you.’ He’s saying, ‘You know that I know that you just poisoned me, and I’m daring you to say, ‘Please don’t swallow it.’ And when she doesn’t say anything, there’s this joy in his tapping out first. He’s met his match, and there’s a release for him in admitting, ‘I’ve been beaten. This is the woman I love.’”
In a separate interview, Krieps reveals that she and Day-Lewis filmed Alma and Reynolds’s climactic “staring contest” early on in production without any advanced rehearsal. “We never talked about it,” she remembers. “It was completely clear what was going on. I was just being Alma being in front of Reynolds, and it happened in the moment. You know how when you love someone so much, you say, ‘I could eat you’? You’re combining passion with food. And the images I had! Saying those lines, it felt so passionate and almost sexual, even though I was talking about mushrooms and eating.”
Phantom Thread is playing in theaters now. Watch the trailer:
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