Geeklies Look At: Phantom Thread

By Alan Mathews on

About Alan Mathews

Alan Mathews keeps trying his best at writing even after his mother admits she was only encouraging him so she could get some work done.
Follow him on Twitter @JAlanMathewsJr


Last week, my friend Shloka and I saw Phantom Thread. It has been nominated for Best Actor and Original Score in the Golden Globes already. It’s a beautiful film and we had to discuss it immediately after. Just a warning: SPOILERS AHEAD

Alan: So what’d you think about this movie?

Shloka: I thought it was beautiful. Best costume design by far.

A: Ha, probably because it’s all about costumes?

S: Definitely gonna win that Oscar.

A: What’d you think about the textures? ‘Cause that’s what popped out to me immediately.

S: Really?

A: Yeah

S: Of the…

A: Everything.

S: Everything?

A: For the entire movie.

S: Elaborate.

A: Okay so, it starts off and doesn’t look grainy, but it looks like everything has rough textures at first. The teapot that he has and weirdly drinks from a large saucer as though he’s in China.

S: It’s Lapsang. How else are you gonna drink it?

A: Right? And then the windows, the mirrors, how they have tiny little dots on them. And when he goes to meet Alma, that place is full of texture. It feels like you can just feel everything. But then, I don’t think that’s what’s real for him; I think that’s what he’s looking for. So he keeps putting himself in those environments. But he’s more like satin, or some real smooth texture, because his place is smooth white walls. The only thing that has texture in his place is the ceiling underneath the stairs.

S: I notice that when you’re walking up I was like, “hmmm.” ‘Cause everything in that house seems so put together and so immaculate. Suddenly you look up at the ceiling and it looks like it could come crashing down at any moment.

A: Right. So it comes to Alma, this girl from the countryside, from this tiny, little town. And I wonder if she’s Jewish or Romanian or something, because that one Dutchess was like…

S: “Not to be racist.”

A: Yeah! I was like, “What? What is she being racist about?”

S: Probably Jewish, because I feel like for British people that would be the thing.

A: And there was that other woman who was sending passports to Jews during the war. They were trying to interview her about that. So I wonder if that was a connection. ‘Cause this is supposed to be taking place during the 1950s… But yeah, she’s all texture, because that’s where she’s from and that’s what he’s looking for.

S: Well even the thing that catches his eye about her is that she sort of trips up when she’s serving. So it’s like that weird, he seems to get called out to her imperfections even though he’s such a ridiculous man.

A: He likes that she has very small breasts and a little bit of a belly. So it’s like all these little imperfection things. But I think it’s hilarious how like, when they’re eating breakfast-

S: Oh! I loved that second time when they’re eating breakfast and it’s just-

A: She’s all teeth!

S: No! When she goes quiet. At first I didn’t notice. Then I was like, how is she buttering her bread without making any noise. And even when she chews there’s no sound. Then it turns out Cyril is the one to piss him off that day. And I was just fascinated by it. Then you get the version of it after they’re married. Where it’s to the max. Even when she pours her water. It’s just a weird way of antagonizing someone.

A: I think it kinda made a metaphor of her kind of being like buttered toast and him being fine silk or some kind of fabric. They just wouldn’t go together, but if you rub them together enough they can’t be separated. I think that’s what happened with them in particular. I think they became a couple that work together? Even if it was… weird.

S: I kind of went into it worried that it was going to be all about him. And this would be another tortured artist tale.

A: Yeah, I was so worried about that.

S: And the troubles of being a creative man. Having to live with that. As the movie progresses, you realize how much of an influence these women have on his life.

A: Right! So then she starts to try to feed him poisonous mushrooms. He’s unaware of it at first. But then he seems to know? How fucked up is that?

S: That was almost… I don’t… it’s almost like a Stockholm Syndrome kind of thing at that point. It’s almost like he realized he caved, he’s finally married this woman. He never thought he was hitherto. He’s just been getting rid of these muses whenever he gets tired of them or they chew too loudly at breakfast. And all of a sudden now he’s married to this woman. Kind of bound to her. She’s not leaving. And I think it almost becomes this thing of he’s just like trapped. He decides, “Well, I’m just gonna buy into this now. And the way that we get along is that she poisons me. And that makes me forget all the things that annoy me about her.” ‘Cause the only reason he ever told her that he loved her in the first place was after the first poisoning. It’s almost like for him to be in love he needs to be poisoned.

A: Well it was logical! She says he has these bouts where after a while he suddenly becomes fatigued, she lays with him, and he’s very tender. So she finds a way where she can force that onto him. And he realizes that he needs breaks every now and then to loosen him up. But at the same time… So he is a spoiled brat. He lives in his own little fantasy world. That’s why when they have that whole dinner where she asks everyone to leave, he’s making up these things, “Do you have a gun? Are you a spy?” … Maybe that had to do with her origins. Were there spies going into… Was she German?

S: Alma. Maybe. Yeah, so it could have been around that time where the Cambridge spies and all that was happening.

A: Yeah, so he has this weird fascination of ideas of her trying to sabotage him, but she’s just like, “No, I just fucking love you. Why don’t you love me back? But I know that you’re gonna ask me to leave now.” So it’s out of spite that she goes for him. When he asks her to marry him and asks her, “What are you thinking?” To me, I thought she was thinking, “How can I fuck with you? I kind of hate you right now with all this shit that you’ve pulled. How can I really fuck with you?”

S: To me it was more just… I think it’s that realization that the only reason she’s gotten him to this point is that she had to literally poison him. I think it’s that hesitation of, “Wait, do I want to marry a man where the only way I can get him to say he loves me is by going through these ridiculous machinations.” That thought process of, “Do I want to do this?” Because at that point she’s the only one that knows what she’s done. He has no idea. So, “Am I okay with this?” ’cause this is what she set out to achieve. Let’s be honest, if that’s what she thought she was gonna get, but now that she’s not she’s like, “Ummmmm, okay fine. I’ll go with this.”

A: Yeah… Hmmm. Maybe… Before that she stared at him all the time. Constantly looking at him while they’re in those terrible, shaking car scenes. She so enamored with him, laughing with him, staring at him. He never looks at her. Ever. He looks at her shape and looks at her dresses. Even when they’re getting married, he looks at her and at her dress. So he’s had that complete fixation his whole life. But when they have that argument he finally looks at her. I don’t know if he processed seeing her, because he was being confronted with reality. And he battled reality with his own wild imaginations. Now he’s kind of like, “Okay, I see how fucked out that is.” Maybe.

S: Even that first night when he brought her back to his house after dinner. There was that scene about the staring contest. She’s like, “I will always win if we have one.” That was her making her first insertion of in this battle of wills, she will win. To me, putting them aside for a minute, I loved Lesley Manville, his sister. She is such a fascinating character. First it took me a while to figure out who is she?

A: Oh, I knew she was his sister immediately.

S: I was like, “Who is this woman?” And finally when he calls her Cyril, “Oh, it’s his sister.” Their conversations were just amazing.

A: Yeah, at first I did think she was some kind of manager of the household, but as soon as Reynolds talked about mother, I was like, “That’s it. They’re siblings.” But the little faces she would make, “Yeah, bitch, this is my brother~. I know him and you don’t.” It’s so much sass and I loved it. At the same time, though, with that competition, I think she listens more than either of those two characters do. And that’s why she really grows to admire Alma. She starts to see that they’re working together. Which is why when Reynolds is like, “We gotta get rid of her. She’s ruining this house.” She doesn’t say anything. Because she always says what she wants. And she never agrees to anything unless if… she’s always honest. And so is Reynolds too, he’s just in his own little fantasy. But I think that’s why at the very end he trusts her to eat the mushrooms. Because like he said at the beginning, he doesn’t want to lie. Gah, and he was caught in that lie, in their argument in the middle of the movie with the asparagus. I think that’s when he realized he’s not doing what he said. That he’s not being who he thinks he is.

S: I do love how much butter she put into his omelette. It was so vindictive. So many weird moments like the one with Barbara Rose. When they grab her, y’know, and dragging, barging into her hotel room. Taking her dress off of her. And like, running off with it. And I guess more of a sort of pride, ’cause all he cares about is his work. Right? And so that sort of affirmation of here is this woman.

A: Not only that, but, he sort of calls her bluff when they were sitting at the table saying, “Don’t blubber. Keep a stiff upper lip.” But then when he gets fed up with it seeing her carried out. They get up there and he realizes she’s sleeping in the dress. He’s like, “Alma go in there and get it.” Then she goes in and gets it. And because she doesn’t falter with any of that I think that’s when he’s like, “Alright, we just went through-” It’s kind of like Aziz Ansari thing, in his book Modern Romance, you have to go through some kind of exciting or terrible circumstance with someone in order to make a close connection. So they went through that that night and it was so stupid, but so great. And he’s all over her at that point. But before it was little playful stuff.

S: What was that woman’s story? The Barbara Rose lady. She pays for their house?

A: She pays for it because she’s their biggest client.

S: But like, what is her deal. She’s fascinating. The fact that she’s marrying that Dominican guy.

A: And he was modelesque too. She’s like, “I’m not beautiful.” But she’s marrying this beautiful guy and everyone’s like, ” What are you bringing to the marriage?”  I forget what she said and she said it five times.

S: Sincerity?

A: That’s it. And under Dominican Law, but really who knows, does she get to keep her money? Who knows?

S: Yeah, then you have the princess who he’s fitted since… At that point I was like, “He’s really an old man!”

A: Yeah! And when they had that scene with Alma in front of the princess. You get that juxtaposition of how Alma’s tall, and she’s got broad shoulders, and a thick neck, and I wouldn’t say plain, but kind of a longer, smoothed face. Whereas the princess has all these little dimples, these curves. Alma, she’s straight up. She is like a line. Whereas the princess has her shoulders back and her neck is jutted out forward which is a way to hide double chin. I don’t know. It was interesting how they tried to juxtapose that. Where Alma in her natural state is very pretty. And then this princess who has been trained to be poised and such through all that training is only beautiful. And Alma is jealous of her. That jealousy is what fuels her to poison him. It was less out of frustration with him and more out of she not wanting to lose him.

S: Ummmm… I think it was a little bit of jealousy, because the jealousy is what prompted the surprise dinner. And then after the fight when he refuses to dismiss her-

A: Or even say, “I love you,” to her. Because she’s already said it to him twice and he says, “I know, but where’s my sister?”

S: And Cyril is such a strange name for a woman.

A: It reminds me of the name of that character in Archer. The bumbling accountant.

S: There are plenty of people called Cyril, but I’ve never heard a woman named Cyril.

A: Yeah. And y’know, he got jealous as well, with that one woman over the…

S: Godson?

A: Yeah. OH! So story structure-wise, I think their reveal of everything was fantastic. They give you all of Chekhov’s guns. All of them. They talk about mushrooms. They talk about him having little fits. And how she loves his little fits. And how she absolutely adores him and gives him everything. But how they don’t reveal who she’s talking to until we’re introduced to the doctor. And then why are we seeing the doctor? Until we realize and go, “Oh wow…” We know everything that’s going on.

S: For the longest time I was so sure that she killed him.

A: Yeah! And… there’s two different methods to surprising an audience. You can do jump scares and surprise, which is a way of bringing out people’s base grossness and revulsion. But this is suspense that slowly draws you out. Because you can see what’s happening; you know where it’s going. You’re just wondering when and how it’s gonna happen. And when it comes back again you’re like, “Is this really gonna happen?” And then he just starts to eat it. They’re staring at each other. Is he doing this defiantly? Does he know what’s going on? And I didn’t know he knew what was going on until he said, “Kiss me before I get sick.”

S: Oh absolutely. And the amount of mushrooms she chopped up I thought, “Clearly he’s going to die.” ‘Cause this is not the little grains she put into his tea.

A: That she carefully ground finely. Hidden in a thimble.

S: Yeah. When he starts eating, like to your point, I was like, “Is he going to keep eating?” In which case he is definitely dying. So it’s till the very end you’re convinced he’s gonna die he’s gonna die he’s gonna die. Oh wait no.

A: I thought he may have fed her a part of the poison when he went to kiss her and he doesn’t. And they have a kid.

S: Something for Cyril to do.

A: And yeah, Cyril is looking on like, “These people are weird.” Like, “I don’t know how this is working.”

S: That’s what I loved about the two women, Cyril and Alma. At the beginning Cyril just sees her as just another one of his people that I’m gonna have to slowly coach and then eventually get rid of.

A: Yeah. She says, “Do you want me to get rid of her.” And he says, “No, why? Why would you ask that?”

S: And then she realizes that this woman knows how to fit in. How to play the game. And manipulates Reynolds in the same way she knows how to. Behave yourself during breakfast, but then pick your moments. Pick your battles. ‘Cause as much as you initially think that Cyril is spending her time in her brother’s shadow and just managing or whatever. There’s that one conversation where they have where she’s like, “You do not want to pick a fight with me ’cause you will lose.” And you realize that in this relationship it really is Cyril that’s in control.

A: Oh yeah. I felt that early on, but couldn’t tell how strong of a hold she has.

S: Yeah. She almost recognizes that kindred spirit in Alma. And realizes, “Alright, I can work with this.” And even when Alma proposes the surprise. She says, “I don’t really think that’s such a good idea.” You can read that two ways. One is the original way when she’s trying to coach all the new ladies that show up, “No Reynolds doesn’t like it this way, he likes it this way.” Or you could read it as a warning to Alma like, “No don’t do this. If you do this you’re gonna screw things up.”

A: That’s what I think, because I thought he was gonna get angry or something. Because he is a volatile kind of person, but he doesn’t act out. I mean, he does in very passive aggressive ways. So that was another interesting thing about the differences between them is the language that they used. Reynolds and Cyril, they know pleasant, high minded language. But Alma is like, “I respect you, Cyril, but I want to surprise him.” During that whole talk is when it stood out to me the differences of where they’re from. And that weird hallucination of Reynold’s mom.

S: Well that’s why I thought he was going to die. ‘Cause he was seeing the mom. But I guess not. So in the beginning it’s so clear that he’s the one who’s acting like a child. She’s like, “He’s like a little baby and you need to manage him.” But once they get married, she’s the one who gets accused of acting like a toddler by that horrible woman who’s just needling him. “Oh, she’s got that glow of a first marriage.”

A: A first marriage.

S: Such a classic… Ahhh… I just loved that character. Just the insidious bitchiness of her was amazing.

A: I hated her so much, but I think I liked her because I hated her. It was like, “Don’t ruin this for us. We worked so hard.”

S: It’s all about those appearances. The people who know him well know that he’s the child. Versus in public people think that it’s Alma that’s the toddler throwing tantrums.

A: What was the name of the guy at the gas station?

S: Guy at the gas station? What gas station?

A: When he goes into that town and he asks him to fill up the tank and check the tires and the oil.

S: Oh, I don’t know. Why?

A: I feel like there’s some contextual clues within that whole scene of where he’s at. Because he has a cabin there. So where does he vacation? Is that where he’s from? Oooh. Did he? Hmmm… She doesn’t look anything like his mom. Because they were standing next to each other in the room when he was hallucinating. But is she like. Oh, maybe that’s the house they grew up in. So, local girl from where he grew up. Probably someone his mom wanted him to marry. So he’s from there. So that snidy woman who is talking about a foreigner, if that’s the home he grew up in, that means he’s a foreigner…

S: I think you’re pushing it. They’re very British.

A: Maybe.

S: That’s the reason that Alma is so simplistic in the way that she talks. It’s not her first language. And that’s what helps. She’s legitimately saying what she intends to say. She has a limited vocabulary. That’s why she can be more direct when she speaks to them. As opposed to them playing their little board games and they go about it. Remember that New Years Eve party at the Chelsea Arts Club was so bizarre. With the elephant and the random masquerades. It was so bizarre. That whole movie was so gorgeous to look at.Every frame of it felt like a painting. You just look at it and… Like, at times I would stop paying attention to what everyone was saying ’cause I was just staring at the surroundings and staring at their surroundings. Even that scene with the motley fashion show. It was so interesting to see Alma, depending on what dress she was wearing, the attitude she had as she walked through the room. So playful at the beginning with her hands in pockets and twirling around like a little girl. And then more straight in a stiff dress she can barely move two feet in. And the music. It was so constant.

A: The music was constant? I couldn’t tell at all. I could tell when it was getting louder like, *insert music impression burr bur bur bur burrr*

S: I felt like it was always playing except in crucial moments. That’s why you pay more attention to the silent breakfast. That’s why it strikes you because there’s nothing else going on in the background. Even at the new years. There’s music playing in the background. But then there’s also the Auld Lang Syne on top of it and both going in tandem. And that’s why I was paying attention during the credits. It’s Jonny Greenwood. I need to look that up, ’cause… Do you know who that is?

A: No idea.

S: ‘Cause I was very intrigued.

A: It sounded very…

S: Classical.

A: Dated.

S: Very in keeping with the rest of the movie. Everything. The production design was spot on. It was so beautiful. Even when he meets her for the first time. The food that he orders? This movie made me very hungry.

A: There’s so many different movies where they hit one or two notes, but with this one they had so many different layers that they could come back and reference. So, in comedy repetition is a tactic where the more something is said the funnier and funnier it gets. So with this, the audience was laughing at a lot of the awkwardness. And the food, clothing, texture. It was all over the place.

S: Oh that’s! I just realized the first time she gives him food is at the cafe. And when she gives him a name she calls him Hungry Boy. And then one of the last scenes is her feeding him the omelette. So she sussed him out from the very beginning. Everything was delicious. I wanted to wear all of the dresses. I wanted to eat all of the food.

A: I want all of his suits and I don’t know why, but I really want pick socks now. All those different colors. And it got so much more vibrant. Because at the beginning of the movie it was full of muted color and as it got further and further it got sharper and sharper. Even in the house. That’s the first house he brought her to. I didn’t notice because the colors were so different. The lighting was so different. I was like, where are they? It was a good movie.

S: It was a good movie.

Should you go see it? Hell yeah. See it in theatres. We were talking later and realized that since this was such a long movie, if we had watched it on our own, we probably wouldn’t have gotten through it. But in a movie theatre, you’re almost compelled to watch it straight through and keep the pace without any ruptures from pausing or coming back another day. Go see it while it’s still in theatres.

And if you want to hear more from Shloka and I, you can find us on Twitter. Shloka is @shlokes and I’m @jalanmathewsjr.

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