Essays · Movies

What ‘Phantom Thread’ Gets Right About OCD

An exploration of the nuanced relationship of Alma and Reynolds and the barrier between them.
Phantom Thread
By  · Published on October 17th, 2018

Phantom Thread, whatever it is, seems to be an embodiment of Samuel Beckett’s idea that love is a form of lethal glue.” – Errol Morris

Phantom Thread is an exquisite period piece set in London in the 1950s that features nuanced and mesmerizing performances from Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, Vicky Krieps as Alma Elson, and Lesley Manville as Cyril Woodcock. Reynolds is an eminent figure in the fashion industry and works alongside his sister Cyril under the “House of Woodcock” designing outfits for the rich and powerful. Those who commission Reynolds don’t do so just once. Each client we see in the film carries a history of being dressed by the House of Woodcock. For Reynolds, a man who thrives on routine as an anchor for the turbulent waters of his mind, this is not an accident.

In a DGA interview between Rian Johnson and Paul Thomas Anderson, Anderson revealed his muse for the movie was David Lean‘s The Passionate Friends (1949), a drama wherein we follow the tragic story between lovers Mary (Ann Todd) and Steven (Trevor Howard) whose paths reach a bifurcation. Circumstances change, people change, but our feelings don’t necessarily change. It’s a multi-faceted story that unfolds in a non-linear way, and captures the nature of memories. To do The Passionate Friends justice would require exploring it in a separate essay, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it because both it and Phantom Thread compliment each other.

With a lifetime comes a gamut of emotions and experiences with love, and this is reflected in the relationship between Alma and Reynolds, but there is an aspect of Reynolds that stands as a seemingly impenetrable barrier between them. In the 2003 film Matchstick Men, Nicolas Cage plays Roy Waller, a con artist struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Cage’s performance is more animated, decidedly so, although it does have its nuances. Daniel Day-Lewis takes a different approach in that his performance as Reynolds is reticent and cold. Both Cage and Day-Lewis are playing characters afflicted with the same disorder; their personalities and the way in which they cope with it are different.

I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It’s difficult to convey how painful and debilitating OCD is to people who don’t have it. Education and experience in mental health care most assuredly can help one understand, but it is not the same as experiencing the disorder first-hand. Public understanding and media representation of the disorder could be better. In truth, my understanding of OCD was lacking, and I didn’t recognize it in myself until I was well into my 20s. The disorder is multi-dimensional and can manifest in different ways. This is true for other mental illnesses, but the nature of OCD seems to be elusive to the public consciousness.

OCD is having thoughts that you can’t elude (obsessions) and behaviors that you can’t stop doing (compulsions). OCD is not having a “preference” for something or someone being “anal-retentive.” Compulsions fall into four categories: counting, checking, cleaning, and avoidance. There are different kinds of thoughts, but they’re all intrusive, and our brains have a propensity to get caught up in them. It triggers your sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight” response), so you’re vexed with anxiety and depression. You perform rituals as a response to the thoughts. They’re a vain attempt to alleviate the symptoms. It’s a miserable cycle of doubt, guilt, anxiety, and depression, and these symptoms can manifest differently in each person with OCD.

It’s important to note that everyone has thoughts, but people who have OCD fixate on their thoughts and get caught in recursive loops. The brain can’t move on. It’s a thunderous mess of thoughts that repeat over and over and over and over again. No matter what you do or where you are or what’s going on around you, they’re still there. The harder you try to not think about them, the “stickier” that makes them, to borrow the phrasing from “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts” by Sally M. Winston and Martin N. Seif.

People with OCD typically can rationalize their behavior and thoughts. It’s absurd, and we KNOW it’s absurd. It’s the hardest thing to mentally be present within the actual moment you physically reside in. We hate that it happens. We can’t help it. No one chooses to have OCD, and the unfortunate reality is that the disorder can’t be cured. Treatment includes medications and psychotherapy, but they mitigate the disorder, not resolve it entirely. Improvement is not a binary process; there will be setbacks, and there’s no exact timeline for how to improve one’s OCD.

As Alma and Reynolds’ infatuation blossoms into love, she cautions him, “Whatever do you do… do it carefully.” And it’s with great care that I’ve collected and assembled my thoughts. In talking about the whys and wherefores of Reynolds’ behavior, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m excusing it. Nor am I condoning an unhealthy relationship. The purpose of art is to explore different points of view and in turn, engender thought that affects our own perspectives. To engage with what plagues Reynolds does not mean his maltreatment of Alma is okay, for it is still incumbent on those with mental illness to get help because the people around them can not do it for them.

Phantom Thread is a romantic drama with sharp comedic beats to it—a seriocomic movie in truth. The story is dipped in different shades of gray instead of a black and white contrast. It begins in media res with Alma in close-up talking about Reynolds with Dr. Robert Hardy (Brian Gleeson). While Reynolds is a pivotal part of the film, it is Alma who grounds the story and connects with the audience.

Alma says to Dr. Hardy, “Reynolds has made my dreams come true. And I have given him what he desires most in return.” “And what’s that?” the doctor inquires off camera. “Every piece of me,” she answers. A moment passes and Dr. Hardy observes, “He’s a very demanding man, isn’t he? Must be quite a challenge to be with him.” A pause. “Yes. Maybe he’s the most demanding man,” she says.

It is through Alma that we see Reynolds. Our minds are worlds, and we can’t experience these worlds first-hand, only glimpses. Reynolds’ mind is especially ensconced. Guarded. Alma’s conversation with Dr. Hardy serves as a primer not just for her understanding of Reynolds, but also to frame Reynolds through a specific lens for us. Our formal introduction to Reynolds is a montage of his morning routine. Watching Reynolds prepare makes it apparent that this is his routine every morning. It’s ingrained in him. If Reynolds diverged from this regiment, he’d be lost. Even though we only see the montage once, we can sense its familiarity through the specificity. It’s what makes it ritualistic behavior.

The next image we see is Cyril preparing for the House of Woodcock and its personnel to start their day. The routine of it seeps into the manner in which they carry themselves. They’ve done this many times before, and it is innate to them. It’s all methodical; they don’t think about it, they just do it. Much like a bespoke dress designed and sewn by the House of Woodcock, the place in which Reynolds lives and works is methodically designed down to the most minute detail. It is seamless. Reynolds has, in essence, created a world of routine because it’s the only way he knows how to function with the symptoms of his OCD.

Phantom Thread Cyril

Before Reynolds and Alma meet, we see a morning routine with him, Cyril, and Johanna (Camilla Rutherford)—Reynolds’ significant other before Alma. There’s a tension present from the start. Johanna offers Reynolds a pastry. “Remember I told you no more stodgy things?” Reynolds offers as a barb without so much as a glance. Johanna doesn’t recall. She suggests he must have told someone else. A moment passes. It’s deflating, and we can feel her pain and befuddlement. “Where have you gone, Reynolds?” Johanna asks him. Reynolds is distant. Cold. It’s as if he’s in another city or perhaps country despite physically sitting across the table from Johanna. Cyril watches the two with nothing more than an intense stare. The tension is heightened. Reynolds pauses and says “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation, please. I’m delivering the dress today. And I cannot take up space with a confrontation. I simply don’t have time for confrontations.” It’s a frigid response to a sincere appeal.

We transition to dress fitting and meet Reynolds’ client Countess Henrietta Harding (Gina McKee). There’s a palpable history apparent from the moment she walks in to frame. We see Reynolds pacing as he waits for Henrietta to don the dress. The intense, distant look along with his hands in his pockets and guarded posture makes it clear: this task is ennervating for him. Even after he inspects Henrietta in the exquisite dress and garners approval from everyone in the room—including Cyril—Reynolds looks drained. Not even the smile he offers Henrietta can mask it.

Afterward, Cyril and Reynolds meet at a restaurant to decompress. Cyril asks about Johanna and posits that it’s time for things to end between her and Reynolds. His eyes avert. He holds his glasses in his right hand methodically fidgets with them. “I have an unsettled feeling. Based on… nothing I can put my finger on. Just butterflies.” This a glimpse into what’s plaguing Reynolds. It’s anxiety. It may not be what people generally understand anxiety to be, but the symptomology of it varies for each case. The trigger for Reynolds anxiety, in this case, appears to be from Cyril’s mentioning of Johanna, but Reynolds gives us more about what’s bothering him. He shares that the death of their mother years prior still weighs on him. He finds comfort in the dead watching over the living, and perhaps that’s a coping mechanism. He’s caught up in the past. Their mother’s death was tragic and beyond their control, and yet Reynolds can’t help but ruminate about it. The constant urge to control things and mitigate uncertainty are hallmarks to OCD.

By Cyril’s urging, Reynolds goes away to the country to get away for a bit while she tends to things at the House of Woodcock and handles Johanna. It’s while on holiday that Reynolds and Alma first meet. After a playful scene of Reynolds placing an inordinately long and specific breakfast order and Alma recalling it all without keeping the slip she wrote it on, Reynolds asks Alma out to dinner. It’s on this date we learn more of Reynolds past. His mother taught his sister and him the trade of sewing. Reynolds shares with Alma that he sewed his mother’s wedding dress when he was 16 for what would be her second wedding ceremony—his father passed when he was young. Reynolds struggled to complete the dress, and the family nanny refused to help him due to superstitions about wedding dresses. There are superstitions that can manifest in the thoughts and ritualistic behaviors of OCD. Reynolds was in over his head, and Cyril intervened and completed the dress for him just in time. He admits to Alma that he couldn’t have done it without her.

Reynolds and Alma’s relationship blossoms and in a voice-over, she shares that she never cared for her body and describes in detail why she doesn’t like each part of her. And she loses herself in Reynolds work. She feels perfect. But Reynolds’ OCD is a barrier and we see this manifest as a conflict between them in different ways.

Alma and Reynolds keep separate quarters — their moments of intimacy are few and far between. OCD most assuredly can impact one’s sex life, depending on how it manifests. Reynolds’ aversion to intimacy is left ambiguous, and we can only speculate. Perhaps it’s a result of a low sex drive as a result of anxiety and depression. Perhaps there are specific obsessions that are a barrier. Reynolds doesn’t communicate any of this with Alma, leaving her to wonder on her own.

Cyril, Alma, and Reynolds go about eating breakfast, and Alma is seated where we previously saw Johanna at the beginning of the film. Alma goes about eating her food as she normally would, Reynolds balks at the noise she makes, “It’s as if you just rode a horse across the room,” and walks out in a fuss. Cyril posits to Alma, “His routine when he’s in it, is best not shaken. If breakfast isn’t right, it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day.” Reynolds can’t focus if he diverges from his routine. It’s not Alma’s fault.

On another occasion, Alma brings Reynolds tea while he is working on a dress. He rebuffs Alma’s kind gesture, “I didn’t ask for tea.” Reynolds demands she take the tea back. Alma does so, and he says, “It’s a bit late now, isn’t it?” Alma interjects “But I’m taking it out.” “The tea is going out. The interruption is staying right here with me.” Alma isn’t doing anything wrong, but what Reynolds labels as a “distraction” sends him into a recursive loop. This dysfunction is what differentiates a person who has OCD from someone who doesn’t have the disorder.

Alma longs for spontaneity. The barrier she senses between her and Reynolds, his “rules,” and the feeling of monotony. It’s all too much. In an attempt to rekindle things, Alma prepares a surprise dinner for Reynolds and sends Cyril and the staff home early for the evening. Cyril tries to dissuade Alma from doing this, but ultimately relents and wishes her the best before departing. Reynolds arrives home and immediately intuits something is different about the House of Woodcock. This tension brews throughout the evening until it erupts in an argument that ultimately leads to a vituperative rebuttal from Reynolds. What was intended as a sincere gesture by Alma ends up being nastily rebuked by him, which echoes the earlier tea scene between them.

Phantom Thread White Dress

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy is one modality of treatment for OCD. It consists of exposing someone to the source of their anxiety—the “trigger” in a controlled setting under supervision from a therapist—and allowing the sympathetic response to occur until the “feed or breed” parasympathetic response takes over and calms the person. In Reynolds’ case, a “trigger” would be falling ill, ruining a dress, and being unable to do anything but lie in bed. Alma finds wild poisonous mushrooms and decides to have Reynolds unknowingly ingest them in a “special” cup of tea she brews for him. This results in the aforementioned “trigger,” leaving Reynolds incapacitated and in the care of Alma.

This puts the House of Woodcock into overdrive, leaving the staff and Cyril to mend the dress Reynolds accidentally damaged and complete it in time for Princess Mona Braganza’s (Lujza Richter) wedding. From Reynolds POV while lying in bed, we see his mother (played by Emma Clandon) in the wedding dress sewed by Cyril and him. Alma walks into the room, and we see Reynolds POV shift. His mother disappears. Alma supersedes the hallucination, and the implications of it make one wonder if Reynolds is processing his grief or instead replacing one obsession with another. The dress is completed just in time and Reynolds recovers. In the wake of this form of “exposure treatment,” he asks Alma to marry him. They betroth, and things seem pleasant until the relationship slides back into a bitter state.

While in the middle of another dress fitting, Reynolds seems lost in thought. Something is vexing him. He excuses himself and walks inside Cyril’s office. He learns from Cyril that Countess Henrietta Harding—the client seen at the start of the film—has sought out the services from another house for her dresses. We see Reynolds’ anxiety boil over into a vituperative outburst. Processing change with OCD can be incredibly difficult, and Reynolds understands something is different, but he attributes Henrietta’s departure as an act of “betrayal” and as a direct result of Alma “changing” the House of Woodcock. Alma walks into the room as this outburst unfolds. Cyril rebukes Reynolds as she’s come to like and trust Alma. ERP therapy can require more than one session, and it’s in this moment that we can’t help but realize what is going to happen next.

Alma prepares an omelet for Reynolds with the same poisonous mushrooms she previously placed in his tea. This time, she does so openly, and Reynolds can’t help but notice what she is doing. We watch Alma finish the meal and serve it to Reynolds. He takes his first bite and embellishes it, chewing it slowly. Alma stares into Reynolds’ eyes and says, “I want you flat on your back. Helpless. Tender. Open. With only me to help. And then I want you strong again. You aren’t going to die. You might wish you’re going to die, but you aren’t going to. You need to settle down a little.” Reynolds swallows, and Alma smiles. “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick,” he says, and they embrace.

Phantom Thread ends on a note of uncertainty. We see a montage of a future Alma envisions with Reynolds that is sweeping and poetic. Reynolds acknowledges her hopes for the future but anchors them with, “Yes, but right now we are here.” Alma holds his head in her lap. “Yes, of course, we are.” Coping with OCD requires one to contend with uncertainty. To accept imperfection. To be able to carry on with what is in the now, even if your brain is a torrential storm of thoughts about the past and future. We can’t stop the thoughts we have, only address the way we respond to them. For a life spent ensconced in a fortress of routine is not as fulfilling as one spent experiencing new things. We can’t do this without taking risks and being mindful of the present. Perhaps Alma and Reynolds do create that future she envisions. Perhaps not. We don’t know, and that’s okay.

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Adores storytelling and raccoons. Fought the void but the void won.