I don’t know about you, but Phantom Thread left me wanting more info about the psychology of the couple’s love story. As the info I’ve put together involves SPOILERS, I’d advise you to read ahead with caution unless you’ve already seen the film.
From the start, whereas the character of dressmaker Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is sharply drawn, his newest lover and muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps), is significantly less known to the viewer.
David Edelstein, Vulture: “Woodcock allows only two people into his space: [Sister] Cyril [Lesley Manville], who takes care of the day-to-day business of living, and his mother, who is dead but ever present.”
Kristen Page-Kirby, Washington Post:
I have seen [Woodcock] described by other critics as ‘exacting,’ ‘meticulous,’ ‘rigid’ and ‘insatiable.’
He is all of those things. He is also emotionally abusive.
Put Woodcock and the much younger Alma together, and an unhealthy pairing ensues. As one Spoiler review on IMDB states, “Someone should refer them to counselling.”
While several critics have focused on the theme of toxic masculinity, Krieps herself has pointed out that her own character’s actions are feminist in nature (BBC), which winds up having the effect of balancing the couple’s dynamics.
Guy Lodge (Guardian): Alma “gradually begins to assert herself in ways that aren’t immediately perceptible, steering their relationship into obliquely sadomasochistic territory…It’s neither a story of subjugation nor one of empowerment: as the lovers figure out ways to play their weaknesses against each other, all traditional notions of one-way control are out the window.”
And Anna Silman, The Cut: “While the film starts out looking like a familiar tale of domineering male genius, it ultimately flips those expectations on their head. Alma vies for power and ultimately achieves it — through some rather unexpected (and twisted) means.”
Like, you know, the poisonous mushrooms.
Silman, seeking further elucidation herself, has called on psychiatrist Marc Feldman for help. Feldman, the author of an upcoming book on various types of medical deception, told Silman (The Cut) he sees in Alma “’Munchausen syndrome by adult proxy,’ a form of abuse in which a caregiver artificially induces illness in someone he/she is caring for.”
On the other hand, adult-to-adult cases are apparently very rare, and “Feldman says he has never seen a case where (à la Phantom Thread) the victim colludes with the perpetrator to achieve some sort of gratification. That’s because in most cases the victims tend to be unable to comprehend the abuse they are undergoing or unable to resist, often because they are physically or intellectually disabled.”
Well, it turns out that director Paul Thomas Anderson had Munchausen on his mind too in preparing to make Phantom Thread. As told to David Fear, Rolling Stone:
…I was sick and my wife [actress Maya Rudolph] was taking care of me. And my imagination just took over at some point, where I had this thought: ‘Oh, she is looking at me with such care and tenderness … wouldn’t it suit her to keep me sick in this state?’ I don’t know a lot about that disorder, Munchausen [symdrome] by proxy…But that moment was enough to … it gave me an idea that such a thing could be served up with some spark of mischievousness and humor that might, in a larger picture, lend itself to what it means to be in a long-term relationship, you know. And the balance of power that can happen in that…