December 18, 2018, 22:01

“Phantom Thread” Is the Best Food Movie in Ages |

“Phantom Thread” Is the Best Food Movie in Ages |

When Reynolds Woodcock, the protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson’s
“Phantom Thread,” first meets Alma, the woman who will disrupt and
transform his life, she is waiting on him in the dining room of an
English country hotel. He flirts with her by ordering an elaborate
multipart breakfast, a litany of meats and scones and condiments and, as
an afterthought, a helping of sausages. The punch line comes once Alma
has written all this down, when Reynolds tears the page out of her
notebook, pockets it, and demands that she deliver his order by memory.
The gesture seems, at first, like a sly act of emotional dominance. But
Alma is one step ahead of Reynolds. After she executes his order
flawlessly, and he asks her to dinner, she hands him a note already
written: “To the hungry boy,” it reads. It’s a flirtatious, disarming
way of addressing a man decades her senior. It’s also a mother’s phrase,
a promise of care.

Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis in what he has described as his final
performance, is a brilliant, obsessive fashion designer, a couturier who
outfits Belgian princesses and English heiresses from his atelier in an
elegant London town house, where he lives a life constructed entirely
around facilitating the creative clarity that enables his work. The
movie—which was nominated for six Oscars on Tuesday—is a portrait of the
life of an artist, and Anderson’s lens captures sumptuous images of the
designer and his staff at work: cutting luxurious fabric, smoothing
perfect seams, tweaking structured collars. But when it comes to the
dramatic core of the film, the romantic struggle of Reynolds and Alma,
“Phantom Thread” isn’t a movie about fashion any more than “American
Psycho” is a movie about banking. It is, instead, one of the great food
movies in recent memory.

Even before that breakfast where Reynolds first meets Alma, we learn
that the exacting, impatient designer is used to exercizing his will on
the people around him through food. He asserts dictatorial command over
the breakfast table, raging at “gloppy” pastries, delighting in porridge
and cream, impressing upon both Alma and his previous lover the need to
butter and chew one’s toast without making crunching sounds. (Anderson’s
sound designer, Christopher Scarabosio, went to great lengths to make
toast sound irritating.) He takes pleasure in ordering for others at
restaurants, whether a custard dessert for Alma at their first dinner
together or a steak tartare for his sister and business partner, Cyril—“my little carnivore,” he calls her, with affection and a hint of
menace. In a brief scene early in the film, Reynolds’s cook offhandedly
tells Alma that her employer hates his mushrooms cooked in anything more
than a whisper of butter. It’s yet another illustration of the
suffocating precision of his desires, which Alma, if she wants to be
with Reynolds, must learn to accommodate.

Alternatively, as we come to learn, she can lay siege to them. In the
canon of culinary fiction, food is often a straightforward metaphor for
love, a vehicle for pleasure, comfort, connection, creativity, or
fulfillment. What’s less often depicted—but which makes up the very
foundation of “Phantom Thread” ’s culinary language—is the kitchen’s
ever-present sinister side. Taking on the responsibility of feeding
someone, or affecting the way he feeds himself, can be warfare, a
game of power and control. Anderson’s film is about the entwined ways in
which people care for and harm one another, the navigation of competing
desires and appetites, which all relationships are fuelled by. As a dress
designer, Reynolds can effortlessly take charge of Alma’s body. “It is
my job to give them to you,” Reynolds tells her, early in the film, when
she is being measured for a gown and apologizes for her small breasts.
And he pauses, ominously: “If I choose to.” But, in the realm of food,
Alma sees a chance to seize the advantage.

The explosive turning point in their difficult romance takes place at
the dinner table. Alma has elbowed her way into cooking Reynolds a
special meal for his birthday—he does not like surprises, Cyril tries to
warn her, but she is undeterred. At that dinner, the candlelit dining
room already tense with Reynolds’s displeasure, Alma delivers a
retaliation, a way of asserting her authority in the only avenue
available to her: she serves him asparagus with a pool of melted
butter, as she likes it, rather than with oil, as he prefers. He showers
it almost violently with salt, picks up a spear, drags it with intense
deliberation through the butter, and sullenly takes a bite. When Alma
looks to him for reassurance, he fiercely diminishes her. “What happened
to make you behave like this?” he asks. “Is it because you think I don’t
need you?” Yes, she says, and in a gossamer voice he replies, “I don’t.”

Alma’s voice-over fills the film, low and hypnotic with her steady love
and determination. After the disastrous dinner, she explains that if
Reynolds’s life leaves her no room to deliver care, even in matters so
simple as asparagus with butter instead of oil, she simply needs to put
him in a position where he’s unable to refuse it. The most beautiful,
most lush culinary scene in “Phantom Thread” is also the culmination of
this power struggle. It comes at the very end of the movie (vague
spoilers ahead), when Alma makes Reynolds a mushroom omelette in the
kitchen of their London home. The scene is shot with an almost
animalistic intimacy, a play of closeup textures: the contrast between
the slick metal of the knife and the dry fibre of mushrooms; the glossy,
blanketing tumble of finely chopped chives. And butter! Not once but
twice, one dense yellow knob for browning the mushrooms, and then
another to grease the pan, the curds billowing up as the beaten eggs
come into contact with the heat.

There is a more urgent act of submission at play when Reynolds agrees to
eat this buttery creation, but it would be giving away too much to
describe it in full. Suffice it to say that there are many great stories of
poisoning, of course, and even of poisoning done out of love, but it is
rare in the canon (I cannot for the life of me think of another example)
for it to be evidently consensual; so beautifully, sensually wrought; or
so intensely stimulating in the viewer of a desire to go home and make a
mushroom omelette of her own.


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