Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
Let me start by saying, I adore Paul Thomas Anderson. When I first saw “Magnolia” it blew me away. Never had a film made me feel more emotions than that film did during that first viewing. I think it also helped that I saw it while I was a film student in the valley, so it holds a special place in my heart. It was the first movie that made me look at films as something more than entertainment. Sure, it was entertaining, but it could also be art, and PTA was the first director that I saw as a true artist. “Boogie Nights”, “Punch Drunk Love”, and “Magnolia” are still three of my all-time favorite movies. I think the reason I have such an affinity for these movies in particular is the performances are so grounded, in a chaotic and complicated plot. Because the characters feel so real, you go along with the fact (spoiler alert, look away!) frogs fall from the sky. It actually enhances the cinematic magic for me. And don’t get me wrong, the performances in “There Will Be Blood” are a master class on acting, but I did have a harder time connecting to it. And I’m one of the rare fans that also loved “The Master”, although truthfully, after a second viewing. “Inherent Vice” was entertaining, but I was also in the “right frame of mind” to watch it (and we’ll just leave it at that!) This is all to say, I was very much looking forward to his latest film, “Phantom Thread” because it seemed like a perfect formula for the PTA movies I love: a complicated character played by the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis in a more grounded setting. I was IN.
For those that haven’t seen it yet, now’s the time you should probably stop reading because there’s spoilers ahead. I’ll give you a minute…
…Okay, I assume if you’re still with me it’s because you’ve already seen it, or you just don’t care about spoilers, so I’ll continue on.
Phantom Thread reunites Daniel Day-Lewis with PTA, but this time they explore the illustrious and beautiful world of fashion design in a 1950’s London. The film is stunning to look at, especially if you have an appreciation for beautiful dresses (which I surely do). Day-Lewis’ character, Reynolds Woodcock is an almost maniacal designer who approaches his work with a maddening perfectionism that drives nearly everyone (except his seemingly co-dependent sister) slightly crazy. But, he’s just as much adored as he is feared and respected. Everyone wants to be dressed by him, or be in his presence, so of course that requires a certain compromise. This is the kind of character I love to watch and write, so even though the pacing of the movie is pretty slow, I was fascinated by him and couldn’t wait to see what happens next.
The driving narrative of the film is Woodcock’s latest muse and lover, Alma (played brilliantly by the fearless Vicky Krieps (sidenote: can you imagine getting cast in a role where you have to go one-on-one with Daniel Day-Freaking-Lewis. Holy shitballs). Unlike Woodcock’s previous girlfriends, Alma is no shrinking violet. She challenges him and doesn’t cater to his every whim like everyone else in his life. And I think this is why their relationship works and I found myself rooting for them.
About halfway through the film, after Woodcock is particularly nasty with Alma (another sidenote: the sharp dialogue is so cutting, it brings new heights to the word “catty”), she decides to poison him in plain sight (who know omelettes could be so treacherous?) and rendering him violently ill and unable to perform his normally perfectly scheduled duties. Alma then nurses him back to health. It’s during this sequence that Woodcock realizes how much he loves and needs Alma and soon after they marry, something that seemed unimaginable to the professional bachelor. As someone who is also a bit of a perfectionist and workaholic, I connected with the fact that sometimes being sick affords you that ability to slow yourself down. And it’s even better when you have someone to cater to you during that time. Maybe I’m a bit of a complicated character myself.
But just like any marriage that’s been built on a pretense, the marriage becomes an almost-bandaid and the nastiness that’s the undercurrent of their relationship continues. Just when the audience is wondering if the movie is going to end in their demise, Alma decides to poison Woodcock again the same way she did previously (a poisoned mushroom omelette, of course). Except this time, Woodcock proclaims he knows that he’s about to be poisoned, and what’s even more confounding is he seems to like it and want to be! It’s like a game of seduction! And then the movie ends.
I LOVED it.
My husband did not. In fact, he said he loved every minute up until that point and was left with a rather bad taste in his mouth (poison pun definitely intended).
Our difference of opinion about the ending got me thinking about love and relationships in general. Yes, it’s definitely a weird moment and a strange way to end a film with a poison seduction scene (but again, this is coming from a filmmaker that ended a movie with FROGS falling from the sky). But, I think the reason my husband and I (and everyone else I’ve since discussed this with) had such a strong difference of opinion is whether or not you see Alma’s act of poisoning her beloved as an act of love or betrayal. If it’s an act of love— forcing him to slow down and shed the perfectionism the only way he can, then the movie is quite romantic. It takes an extreme act like poisoning someone to show an extreme person you care, after all. And thus, it feels like a great way to end a complicated love story.
So how about you, are you a bit of a romantic and saw the end beat as an act of romance? Or are you more like my husband and a realist who couldn’t fathom why someone would want to be poisoned by the one they love?