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Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Theme of Complicated Grief in the Film, Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is the latest film by Paul Thomas Anderson featuring Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a middle-aged high society dress designer in 1950s London.  At first, as you view the film, you might think that this is only a story about a narcissistic, obsessive genius who is rigid and fussy and must have everything in his own ritualized way in order to create.  But this film is so much more than that.  At the heart of the film and at the core of Reynolds' emotional problems is his inability to mourn the loss of his mother, who inspired him to be a dress designer (see my articles:  Complicated Grief and Unresolved MourningInconsolable Grief For a Mother's Death, and Grief in Waiting After the Death of a Parent).

The Theme of Complicated Grief in the Film, Phantom Thread
Early on in the film, we see Reynolds, who works obsessively designing dresses, at the breakfast table with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and his current girlfriend, Joanna (Camilla Rutherford).

When his girlfriend tries to get his attention, he becomes annoyed that Joanna is interrupting his work.  He has rigid daily rituals that include no interruptions, no noise at breakfast and no other distracting diversions--otherwise, the rest of his day is ruined beyond repair and he cannot work.

Clearly, whereas Joanna might have been a muse to him in the past, Reynolds has now grown tired of her  and sees her as a distraction to his work and someone who has outlived her welcome in his home.

In a restaurant scene with Cyril, Reynolds talks about their deceased mother as looking down from the afterlife and "watching over" him.  There is something tender and boyish about Reynolds' tone and manner, which are like a small boy's wish to be held safely and protected by his mother.

In the same scene, Reynolds tells Cyril that he hopes his mother saw and liked the new dress that he designed for one of his high society clients.  He says that, far from being spooky to him, he finds the idea that the dead watch over the living as "comforting" and it comforts him to feel that his mother watches over him.  

With a sad, wistful look, Reynolds asks Cyril if she thinks their mother likes the recent dress that he designed, and Cyril responds with empathy and indulgence that she thinks their mother does like it.  She listens to him patiently and lovingly, but she also seems concerned about him, especially as he talks about their mother watching over him.

Cyril understands her brother because, in effect, she has taken over the maternal role of "watching over" his business and personal affairs.  She suggests that Reynolds go to their country place to rest.  And since she thinks it's unkind to allow Joanna to wait endlessly for Reynolds, she suggests that she will stay in London and dispatch Joanna with one of Reynolds' dresses as a form of consolation.  In response, Reynolds agrees to rest in the country and allow Cyril to handle the messiness of his breakup.

Soon after, when Reynolds meets a young waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), he is ravenous.  You get the sense as you watch him order and devour a huge meal that his hunger goes beyond food.  He is also ravenous on an emotional level that he probably doesn't understand.

In Alma, he has found his new muse.  On their first date, he tells her how his mother taught him to design dresses when he was young, and since that time, he has taken on his mother's dress designing profession.

He also tells Alma that he always carries a lock of his mother's hair which is sewn in the canvass of his jacket so he can keep it close to his heart.  In other words, he has internalized his mother on many levels, and yet it's not enough to satisfy his longing and need for maternal love.

Back at his country home, he shows Alma a framed picture of his mother in the wedding dress that he designed for her by himself at age 16 for his mother's second marriage.

He also explains that there are many superstitions that some women believe about wedding dresses, including that unmarried women who touch someone else's wedding dress will be "cursed" and never marry.  He explains that this was the reason why their governess refused to help him complete his mother's wedding dress.  But, in his hour of need, his sister, Cyril, helped him to complete the dress.

In response, Alma asks him if Cyril ever got married, and he says that she did not, the question as to whether Cyril was a victim of the "curse" lingering in the air.  In fact, the ambiguous theme of being "cursed" comes up several times in the film.

Reynolds also tells Alma that he sews secret messages in the hem of each dress, and we see this later on when Alma finds a small tag in a princess's wedding dress with a message sewn on it that says "Never cursed."  These secret messages, along with the idea of his mother protectively hovering above him in the afterlife, take on a "phantom" quality.

The core theme of Reynolds' complicated grief continues to come up throughout the film, and it becomes apparent that this "confirmed bachelor," as he describes himself, cannot sustain a relationship with a woman, in part, because he has never let go of his mother as the primary woman in his life.  

At one point, when he is delirious with a fever, he has a hallucination of his mother standing in his bedroom watching over him in the wedding dress that he designed for her.  To Reynolds, the appearance of his mother is real.  He looks at her longingly with tears in his eyes and tells her how much he misses her and he wishes he could hear her speak.

By then, his relationship with Alma has gotten complicated, as his prior relationships have in the past.  Alma is living with Reynolds and Cyril in their beautiful London apartment where he spends most of his time designing his dresses.  We begin to see how he is starting to find Alma's ways grating and he is beginning to distance himself from her.

On a superficial level, this emotional distancing is about Reynolds focusing on his work.  But, on a deeper level, I sensed that the emotional distancing was also a pattern in his relationships in order to keep his mother as the primary woman in his life.  No woman will replace her so, sooner or later, each woman must go.

But Alma, who initially appears to be a simple, young woman who is infatuated with Reynolds and who is willing to orbit around his glamorous world of high fashion, is different from his prior girlfriends.  She won't allow herself to be easily disregarded and dismissed, and she finds a unique and insightful way to make herself emotionally indispensable to him, which eventually satisfies both of their emotional needs.

I won't give away the rest of the plot, but I highly recommend that you see the film and try to keep an open mind while you're viewing it.

As I mentioned before, this film is not what it initially appears to be.  It has a nuanced plot, wonderful acting by the three main actors, beautiful scenery and music, and there is a lot more to it than Reynolds' complicated grief.

You might even want to see it twice because after you see it the first time, you will probably sense that there is much more to it than can be grasped in one viewing, and you will need a second viewing to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the film.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

One of my specialties is helping clients to work through complicated grief and mourning.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.