Kiss Me, My Girl: The Intimacy of Dominance and Submission in Phantom Thread
Phantom Thread is a beautiful, strange, and enigmatic film. What this movie explores is deeply fascinating and struck a resonance in my soul that has stayed with me far beyond the duration of the film. It seems that people’s reactions are either to vehemently love it or hate it. But understanding it on a heart level takes more of a diving-in to look beyond its surface elements to see what it’s really about. While the film depicts 1950s post-war London, high society, the couture fashion industry, the obsessive artistry of a temperamental designer—like the protagonist’s profession of clothing the body, all of these elements are just the film’s dressing. What Phantom Thread is really all about is intimacy. It is the journey of stripping oneself bare of the layers that make an authentic love impenetrable and elusive. It is an intricate portrait of two complex characters who struggle, as if tugging at each end of a rope that binds them, to reach emotional intimacy in their relationship. While the film tackles a common relationship problem, it does so in an unconventional manner. The main characters of Reynolds and Alma share an unusual and tortuous bond which, at its heart, is the heightened state of a dominant and submissive power dynamic. Love is pain. Quite literally. And the only real path to true intimacy is letting go, a surrendering of oneself completely to another. For all the film’s interesting and lush visuals, the struggle for intimacy is the phantom thread of Phantom Thread.
Dominance and submission, or D/s, as presented in Phantom Thread transcends the obvious stereotypes of how it's usually been portrayed on screen. There are no sex scenes and hardly any kissing. There are no blindfolds or ball gags, no riding crops or spreader bars, and Alma never gets spanked for being a “bad girl.” The film speaks a more subtle and elegant language of D/s that encompasses a broader definition of how the dynamic can exist. Not as a function of roleplay, but as the fundamental role of each individual within the context of an ultimately loving relationship. D/s isn't in the instruments of sex or in physical bondage. In Phantom Thread, D/s is in the intention and meaning of gesture. It is in the way Reynolds and Alma relate to one another. The tether, though tortuous, is not literal but in the feelings and emotions of attachment and love. Reynolds and Alma aren't roleplaying scenes of power exchange, they're just being who they are. They're navigating their lives and their relationship to find a love that works for them. As seemingly bizarre as this turns out to be in the end, Phantom Thread shines a light on how people express and receive love in different kinds of ways.
Alma tells Cyril that she wants to “love him the way I want to” when she attempts to cook Reynolds a special dinner. While this ends disastrously in one of the most well-written dinnertime arguments, it foreshadows how Alma and Reynolds achieve their different kind of love which is through the omelette of poisonous mushrooms. The cooking, the serving, the eating, the sickness, and the caretaking become the ritual of their love and intimacy. It is how Reynolds is finally able to become close to Alma. Although this may not be the kind of expression of love that most people would understand, Reynolds and Alma find it is the kind of love they both need. At its heart this is what I believe D/s to be: it is a different kind of love. It is two people whose uncommon needs fit together in a counterpart that may exist with no one else. Even within D/s there is no singular defining way in which it works. There are as many versions of it as there are people who engage in it. While the feeling of love and the need for it may be universal across human experience, the pathways to it are innumerous. The way in which a person expresses it or craves it is different for each of us. We are not all wired the same.
The path that Alma and Reynolds eke out for themselves is undoubtedly strange but unexpectedly beautiful for its intensity of intimacy. Only by way of a hard edge are they able to reach the soft. Pain opens one to a transcendent, almost eternal form of love which Alma speaks of at the end of the film: “I finally understand you.” Phantom Thread shows that the beauty of D/s lies more in intimacy and vulnerability than it does in power and control. The concepts of pain infliction, suffering and surrender are present in the film but not in the way that one might expect. While these are things the submissive usually endures at the hands of the dominant, in Phantom Thread the dominant is the one who must endure these things to overcome his inability to love and be loved. This is a reversal, but not a switching of D/s roles.
Reynolds’ world is one of order and meticulous detail and anyone who enters that world must submit, or at least bend to its fastidious ways. The House of Woodcock is a machine run by regimented routine dictated by Reynolds to serve his artistry. There is a calm to the order, in the stark white and blue palette of cold light, but it is an atmosphere that lacks vitality and life. It is a world filled with objects, not people. For human emotions and entanglement are just too messy. Reynolds chooses simply not to engage in them. His world is therefore a world of walls. For all his ambition and success, his path has been a singular pursuit, leaving him emotionally stunted. He is like a child who doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions or relate to others. When Alma first meets Reynolds she refers to him as the “hungry boy.” His memories are permeated by his mother and his recollection of making her wedding dress signals a time in his life when his artistic ambition began and his emotional development stopped.
While Reynolds may be the most demanding and dominant man, Alma sees someone who is capable of love if only he would surrender to it. Following their first date, they engage in a fireside chat which is not at all cozy despite the smoldering warm glow of the scene. In a seemingly flirtatious yet truth-telling conversation, both characters declare who they are and what their stance is. Reynolds will not be moved, staying aloof to change he states: “I think it’s the expectations and assumptions of others that cause heartache.” Spoken like a man who keeps women at an arm-length distance. Their only role in his life is to sit quietly until they begin to disturb it, at which point they are dismissed.
But perhaps the tour de force of walls that Reynolds has built and surrounded himself with is shown in the scene just following this one when Reynolds takes Alma into his studio. As she stands there exposed in her underwear, the moment is expectant with seduction and charged with an electric eroticism as they’re so physically close to one another. Alma becomes his work of art and she is docile to him. He fits her tenderly, but just as you and she both think something special and wonderful is happening, in walks Cyril piercing the balloon of the moment and deflating it down to a baffled awkwardness. Writing down Alma’s measurements as Reynolds dictates them, Alma is literally reduced to a number, a repeated routine of Reynolds. One of the most formidable walls Reynolds has built around himself is Cyril.
Alma, on the other hand, goes into the relationship with the physical and psychological posture of submission. She is the red of passion and she is unafraid to give, unafraid to feel. What I love most about Alma is that she shatters the misconception that to be submissive is to be weak, mindless, and passive. Alma is the opposite of all of these qualities. On the contrary, she is strong and assertive and she goes after what she wants. During the same fireside chat Alma states: “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.” What she’s really saying here is that she herself is a challenge, that she is up for the challenge, and that she will win. To think that Phantom Thread is yet another story of a self-centered and selfish man who spends the entire movie being rude and abusive to a woman is to misunderstand the film. Eccentric as he is, Reynolds is not the protagonist, Phantom Thread is not his story. It's Alma’s. It is her journey and her narration that bookends the film and she is the character who is triumphant in the end.
When Alma and Reynolds first meet there is an immediate falling-into of their roles as dominant and submissive. Her job as a waitress is clearly not a random fact of storytelling and we see Alma literally waiting on and serving Reynolds. She stands at relaxed attention before him in the posture of pleasing, attuned to the cues of his instructions as he takes her in with his eyes. Each nuanced detail holds a gift of meaning. The way she remembers his order, not from having written it down but by committing it to memory, and what is that if not meaning? The way he keeps the paper with the order on it and the way she introduces herself on paper holds the preciousness and innocence of secrets and passing notes. The tender details of their interaction made my own submissive heart feel serene and peaceful. While the dominant may think he is controlling the situation, the submissive is the one who is leading it. Alma quietly guides the interaction asking “What now?” which prods Reynolds to ask her to have dinner. Throughout the film it is always because of Alma’s prodding that Reynolds is pushed towards change.
It’s interesting to note that it’s the female characters who succeed in getting what they want, including Cyril. Alma wants Reynolds’ love and vulnerability. Cyril, who has spent her life catering to Reynolds’ every narcissistic whim, wants to remove herself from his dysfunctional dependence on her. There is a point when Cyril looks across the table at Alma and you can see the sudden realization that she likes having Alma around. Ultimately the two women work in tandem to achieve their individual ends. The “chic” scene shows Cyril standing up to Reynolds. As she and Alma talk over him as if he isn’t there, they tend to business as usual, but nevermind Reynolds, he is the one unraveling. Utterly discombobulated by the existence of his own emotions, he blurts out: “It’s hurt my feelings!” The shadow of death in the House of Woodcock is Reynolds’ former self. It is the women who are empowered in the end.
When I first saw the trailer for Phantom Thread, I didn’t know what it was really about but I was already pulled in by the line: “And I have given him what he desires most in return, every piece of me.” My heart was startled and taken aback because this is exactly how I define being submissive. It is giving every part of yourself. The intense and immense fulfillment that comes from pleasing another through your surrender. This is every little piece of who you are and it takes bravery to be this way and to love this way. Vulnerability is not for the faint of heart and as we see Reynolds struggle throughout the film, the inability to surrender to love and intimacy can be so difficult to overcome that it is like a curse.
The intention and meaning behind gesture is the subtle language of dominance and submission. What a submissive does for her dominant is a symbol for what is in her heart. Alma spends much of the movie trying to please Reynolds. Serving him. Doing for him. Taking care of him. Admiring and adoring him. We see her submissiveness not only to him, but to his art as well. Submission is in obedience and obedience is in waiting. Alma speaks about how she stands endlessly while Reynolds fits her in clothing. Sometimes he will wake her at 4am so he can work even when they’ve gone to sleep at midnight. No one can stand as long as she does and she is proud of her ability to endure. The power of the submissive is in her patience and her fortitude. Empowerment and strength come from the quiet enduring, the bliss of the sacrificing and surrender of oneself. But what gives it meaning is enduring for another, for the one you love.
While Reynolds may be a demanding man, it is important to realize that Alma is never forced into anything. Submission is not subjugation, it is a choice. And it is Alma's choice to love Reynolds, to submit to him, and to deal with his difficult ways. She knows exactly what he is like but this doesn't deter her or drive her away. Alma actively seeks and engages in her submission and she maneuvers to get what she wants. A D/s relationship is like any other relationship in that there must be reciprocity in it, with each person receiving what makes them happy, or else it's just servitude. D/s is not a one-way street. While Alma may freely give every little piece of herself to Reynolds, what she wants in return is his unguarded love. Vulnerability is required of the dominant too. By giving in to a state of emotional surrender it doesn't mean the dominant is giving up power or position as the dominant.
Submission isn't always about allowing yourself to be controlled sexually. Sometimes it is about giving care and serving the best interests of the dominant. This is what Alma does for Reynolds in the scene involving Barbara Rose who passes out in a drunken stupor at her engagement party. Shamefully doing so in the dress that Reynolds designed for her, this inflames Alma. It is Alma who has the courage to take action to physically get the dress back, defending and preserving Reynolds’ reputation. For Reynolds, his identity is tied up in his art and this gesture of Alma being protective is a meaningful one. We can see in this that she really does love and respect Reynolds. Love is a protectiveness. We see this later at the New Year's Eve party when Reynolds searches for Alma in the sea of people. As the clock strikes midnight and the crowd turns rowdy, pushing towards Alma, Reynolds is besieged with the physical urge to protect her and rushes down to her. This shows a tenderness of heart which he himself can't reconcile yet and they stand at the edge of the party looking at one another, but unable to communicate, a distance still between them.
Getting married is neither a solution to achieving intimacy. We all know those couples who have been married for years, yet still don't know each other very well. We each have our own reasons for why closeness with another may be difficult or insurmountable. We each have our own curse to overcome. Intimacy is the intangible, the thread you know is there, holding things together, but cannot see. Reynolds is resistant to his own emotions and he is only able to feel them in heightened states such as the twirling high of the fashion show. As Alma models his dresses, Reynolds loses himself for a moment, rushing to the peephole. Looking through it he sees only Alma. And she takes playful pleasure in being looked at, the kind of pleasure at being pleasing. It is the secret held between two people in a room full of strangers.
The idea of true seeing and the secret of the true self is brought up during Alma and Reynolds’ first date. As he dips his napkin in the glass of water, reaching to remove Alma’s red lipstick, he speaks of wanting to see the person beneath the makeup. The irony of this is that Reynolds is the one who will not allow his true self to be seen. Alma is already a well of passion and emotions. It is Reynolds who must remove the layers he's cloaked himself in to avoid feeling anything real. The sewing of secrets into clothing is his hidden confessional. The only way Reynolds can reveal his feelings is in such a secretive manner that he releases them into the world as ghostly messages, never to be seen by anyone.
Another heightened state of Reynolds’ emotions is during Alma’s first poisoning when he becomes violently ill and begins to hallucinate his mother's presence. Under the influence of the poisonous mushrooms, Reynolds is able to confess his feelings to the silent apparition of his mother. In doing so, he is finally able to let her go and move on with his life. The effect of the mushrooms is cathartic, placing him in an altered state of mind where he is able to feel things intensely and resolve change. Ordeals are transformative. For someone with an ego as strong as Reynolds, an extreme measure is needed for him to get beyond himself. It is satisfying to watch Reynolds unravel, to see the breakdown of his cold and rigid exterior. Sometimes breakdowns are needed so repairs can be made and things can be better than they were before. This is Alma's intent as she says: “And then I want you strong again.” Taking his medicine is for his own good and the way to break down his walls so he can experience love.
One might argue that by the film’s end, Reynolds has assumed the submissive role. I would disagree with this. The struggle between Reynolds and Alma isn’t a struggle for power, it is a struggle for intimacy. Alma is not jockeying to be the dominant one in the relationship. She's not trying to get the upper hand or buck the system of Reynolds’ fastidious world. She simply wants to be loved by him and share a closeness with him. Her victory in the end is not for defeating Reynolds and breaking him into submission. Her victory is in being able to share with him a state of vulnerability in which he finally opens his heart to love. Reynolds’ act of allowing himself to be poisoned is not an act of defeat or submission, it is an act of surrender. Even after he chooses to eat the omelette he refers to Alma as “my girl,” never breaking the possessive of the dominant. Eating the omelette of poisonous mushrooms is a metaphor so we can see what it means to surrender. If taken literally one might conclude that Reynolds and Alma’s relationship evolves into consensual Munchausen syndrome by proxy. But I think we would all agree this was probably not Paul Thomas Anderson’s intent. The omelette is a symbol. Like Alma standing for Reynolds hour after hour, this is a symbol of her obedience. As the film ends with this image of Reynolds fitting her once again, we see that she has never wavered in her submissive role. And the dress he is fitting her in is floor-length and white with a train: her true wedding dress signifying a pure and deeply felt love.
When Alma says she wants Reynolds flat on his back, tender, open, helpless—I understood this desire so clearly. I understood this film so clearly. Its point of view of the transcendent power of intimacy is not bizarre itself, who wouldn’t want to have more closeness in their relationship? But the path Phantom Thread takes to reach this message and the extreme illustration of the metaphor is what tricks people into thinking this film is sickly twisted. That Phantom Thread isn't afraid to go in weird directions is the delicious fun of it. Its strangeness clicked with my own strangeness. I don’t see anything harmfully twisted because I can read past the metaphor to see the meaning, and the meaning is love. The reason this film resonated with me so much is because Alma’s struggle is my own. This is the kind of vulnerability I seek, the intense kind of closeness where there are no barriers. You cannot love someone who won’t let that love in, and until they do, they can’t love you back.
Vulnerability is a state that terrifies people because it is the true nakedness of heart and soul of what lies beneath the things we clothe ourselves in. My favorite scene in Phantom Thread is when Reynolds is chewing the omelette and he and Alma are looking at one another in an unbroken gaze that could still possibly be an eye-fight. As she declares her desires, you don’t quite know what Reynolds is thinking or feeling, his expression is of someone who is told to take their medicine and then must be watched to swallow it down. But there is no moment as exquisite as when Reynolds says: “Kiss me, my girl, before I am sick.” For in these words is the surrender to love and be loved and there is nothing in the world more beautiful than that.