Feb 09

“Phantom Thread”: Some Psychology

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…

Dec 06

Mary Todd Lincoln: Theories About Mary’s Madness

“All anyone will remember about me was that I was crazy and ruined your happiness.” Mary Todd Lincoln to husband Abe, in the film Lincoln


Steven Spielberg‘s Lincolnwith script by Tony Kushner, who based it partly on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivalschronicles the President’s efforts in the mid-1860’s Civil War period to abolish slavery by passing the 13th Amendment. In the process, we’re let in a bit on the marital dynamics between him and Mary.

While Abe’s known struggles with bouts of melancholy aren’t emphasized, Daniel Day-Lewis‘s impressive portrayal includes one of his main coping mechanisms, a tendency to tell humorous stories in the midst of troubling matters.

And although wife Mary (Sally Field) isn’t a major focus, her role is strong and important nevertheless. Andrew O’HehirSalon, states that:

…Kushner presents her, in just two major scenes, as a woman of tremendous agony and pathos, sublimating all her ambition and desire into her husband and her sons. In our own age, Mary Lincoln could have been a politician herself, or almost anything else she could imagine; in Field’s ferocious portrayal, she is a feminist hero many decades before the advent of feminism, who made her own indelible contribution to American history.

Mary’s mental health issues are made blatant. From Drew Taylor, Indiewire: “If Lincoln has a foil, it’s not the Democrats who wanted to callously shoot down the Amendment, but rather his wife…a woman still mourning the loss of their young son and whose mental instability was the source of much speculation and gossip.”

Her personal problems, indeed, were significant, reportedly including depression, migraines, and significant grief.


Historian Jason Emerson, author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln (2007) and the recent Mary Lincoln’s Insanity Case: A Documentary History, summarizes pertinent historical details (New York Times) about her mental health, some of which is reflected in the film:

Mary Lincoln could be cheerful, graceful and loving, but also vain, arrogant, and jealous. This dichotomy won her many enemies. She is now believed to have suffered from bipolar disorder, the symptoms of which were evident in her early life and worsened over time. During the White House years she suffered from anxiety, paranoia, narcissism, mood swings and depression, and in later years her symptoms grew to include hallucinations and delusions. Mary’s mood swings and depression intensified in 1862, after the Lincolns’ 11-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever. Her grief was so pronounced that her husband actually warned her that if she did not overcome it, she would be driven mad and that he would be forced to commit her to an asylum.

In addition to the deaths of two sons and being reviled by many, stressors affecting Mary included a serious head injury from a carriage accident and the loss of three half-brothers and a brother-in-law to the war.

Ultimately, of course, in 1865 her husband was killed while she sat beside him at the theater. How much pressure did this add to her already burdened and troubled psyche?

Well beyond the time frame of the movie, remaining son Robert eventually believed his mother was so out of touch with reality as to be unable to handle her own affairs. It was 10 years after Abe Lincoln’s death that Robert petitioned to have Mary involuntarily committed to a mental institution.

By court order, Mary was confined for several months to Bellevue Sanatorium in Batavia, Illinois. Her sanity status was given back to her, however, in 1876 when a different jury decided in her favor.


When Mary Todd Lincoln died from a stroke in 1882, she had been living with serious physical deterioration that might have been caused by diabetes—though an autopsy found that she had a brain tumor as well. Could this have been the cause of her psychotic symptoms?

Or was it syphilis, as has been suggested by some? Another question unlikely to ever be answered.