Eat Me, Drink Me
Phantom Thread is about someone called Reynolds who regularly over-orders in restaurants and demands complete silence at breakfast, so obviously I am here for it. But plenty of other people seem to be here for it, too: increasingly, a consensus seems to be forming that it is the rare example of a “good” food movie. It’s certainly a movie in which food – so often relegated to irrelevance or overlooked entirely by cinema – plays an important role. There’s a fittingly spooky explanation of what a ‘phantom thread’ actually is out there on the internet, but in a less literal reading of the title, food is the spectral stuff that binds the fabric of this film together – a source of cohesion but also of some of its most indelible memories.
In her New Yorker piece on the subject, whose title implicitly kickstarted the “Phantom Thread is the best food movie in ages” conversation, Helen Rosner thrills to these hedonics – in particular, the “beautifully, sensually wrought” final scene, “so intensely stimulating in the viewer of a desire to go home and make a mushroom omelette of her own”. This, surely, is the first bar that a good food movie has to clear: it has to awaken in the viewer a sense of appetite in all its sensory totality, a desire not just for things that look beautiful but that sound, feel, smell and taste incredible too. Phantom Thread is rich in these details: the sharp, excruciating rasp of a blunt knife on dry toast in an otherwise silent room, the contrast of textures as a sharper blade cuts through yielding mushrooms, the interplay of solid and liquid, protein and fat, as beaten eggs are poured over the mushrooms, browned in butter.
But Phantom Thread is not all Chef’s Table money shots (besides, even Chef’s Table understands you’ve got to have a bit of backstory, a little foreplay before you reach operatic climax). As Rosner and Jason Diamond, writing for Eater, both understand, the film takes a more decisive step beyond merely good food movie territory by exploring food’s peculiar and peculiarly infinite psychogeography: a “minefield” of both care (when benevolent) and control (when not). Daniel Day Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock begins his romance with Vicky Krieps’ Alma by ordering an extravagant hotel breakfast from her; in time he will order pudding for her, and order her to take off her lipstick after dinner. Despite the differing prepositions, it’s all bound up in the same verb, the same impulse – just as Alma’s ministrations in the kitchen (her realm in an era when men did not typically cook domestically) constellate around “care”: caring for Woodcock by cooking him dinner, taking care of his petulance by poisoning his tea when he rejects her, giving a very different sort of care to him once the poison takes effect.
These are weird, kinky dynamics of mutual need and mutual cruelty: not since the breathy “four peas” scene in Secretary has a film wielded them so strikingly. And they are bound up in the movie’s broader interest in contradiction and perversion, as the impulses of famine and feast wax and wane throughout it: an interest in and love for food are modern enemies of couture, but early on we find Woodcock likes his models with “a little belly” on them; the man himself goes from borderline monk-like in his abstemiousness (tea for breakfast, no butter with his mushrooms or asparagus) to something altogether more ravenous when the mood takes him. As these extremes run up against each other, appetites of all kinds become warped, indistinguishable: Woodcock’s massive hotel breakfast order plays more like a boast of youthful virility despite his advanced age, Alma slyly asks whether Woodcock is “thirsty” before they share a bed for the first time, Woodcock closes the film by declaring – his head positioned suggestively in Alma’s lap – that he’s getting hungry again.
The best food movies reveal hunger to be more than a temporary and personal condition. Like food, it’s everywhere in the real world; as in the real world, it’s everywhere in Phantom Thread. Its most recent equivalent is probably American Psycho: both test the truism “you are what you eat” at the most extreme reaches of its signification, where what you eat and what you want to eat, who you are and what you want to be, all rub up against each other. Think of those grisly, coulis-drizzled opening credits in Mary Harron’s film, the interplay of knife and duck breast; think of what Haron is able to say about the psychopathy of both Patrick Bateman and the culture at large by leaving things, as she does, so starkly and literally out on a plate.
In Phantom Thread, think of the boundlessly beige food of post-war, still-rationed, chronically-repressed England (the rarebit and the sausages, the porridge and the cream); think of how shocking those verdant spears of asparagus are when they appear in a palette and a palate that has so far been starved of any colour. Think, too, of the endless taking of cups of tea – a beverage whose contents are brewed in a pot away from prying eyes, then given expression through only the narrowest of apertures (no symbolism here, please, we’re British!). On the more personal level, think of Woodcock himself – a man as sinewy, elusive, and flighty as his game-bird namesake; a man whose mealtime orders, like his creative process, range from monastic abstinence (smoky, inaccessible Lapsang from a wrought iron pot) to fantasies of excess, boarding schoolboy sickbed reveries of plenitude.
Think, finally, of the mushrooms that bloom into significance in the final act of the film: a foodstuff that grows in forest-floor mulch, that’s hard to categorise, that can be lethal in the wrong hands. In this interplay – nourishment from decay, poison from nourishment – Phantom Thread finds the perfect emblem for the extraordinary relationship at its heart, as well as the key to unlock not just a good food movie, but one of the greats.