In cinema, the gothic genre transmits a proclivity of being loosely defined. In the genre’s tendency to reflect and echo contemporary issues, modes of definitions are regularly refined and more so complicated with the hybridization among other genres, such as polarities of romance or horror (with sometimes the former implying or signifying the latter). Many theorists have homogenized the gothic genre; rooting many of its narrative and thematic tropes in drawing upon classic fairy tales. Lucie Armitt posits the fairy-tale within Gothic literature, stating – ‘Quite clearly, rather than being fairy-tales which contain a few Gothic elements, these [stories] are actually Gothic tales that prey upon the restrictive enclosures of fairy-story formulae’ (Armitt, 1997), and certainly the same can be said of not only the many film adaptations on classical Gothic literature, but also those films that have not. Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent gothic-romance, Phantom Thread (2017) can be said to embody many of folk and classic fairy-tale narrative and thematic components that are the derivation of the films gothic denotation. This essay will seek to examine and analysis Phantom Thread’s synthesis of fairy-tales such as ‘Bluebeard’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood, which draw upon links to the psychoanalytic work of Sigmund Freud who contends that these tales manifest symbolic processes of the unconscious and repressed which are sources that produce elements of the uncanny or ‘unheimlich’ (2003); a term used frequently in definitions of the gothic genre. Moreover, in examining the films fairy-tale ascendency through the lens of psychoanalysis, the capacity of feminist inquiry is impossible not to probe.
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Set in post-war London, within the insular world of 1950s fashion scene, Phantom Thread concerns main protagonist, Alma, and her ensued relationship with legendary dressmaker, Reynolds Woodcock, who increasingly throughout the film, recognizes Alma as an alternative or substitute for the void his mother left him when she died – in one scene we see the animate Alma and the inanimate ghost of Reynolds mother posited against one another, evoking not only oedipal symbolism but Freudian notions of ‘doubleness’, the ‘uncanny’ and affiliations with the ‘revival of the repressed’ (2003), accentuating liminality. Eliciting oedipal connotations, this mode of representation is only one component of the film deriving from ‘Bluebeard’; the French folktale which entails the story of a wealthy old man in the routine of murdering his wives and the attempts of one wife to avoid the fate of her predecessors. The wife gains access to a room in the old man’s mansion that she was forbidden to enter and discovers the corpses of his ex-wives. In Phantom Thread, Reynolds is a Bluebeard whose manor, rather, is metaphorically speaking, home not to the corpses of ex-wives but to a wealth of dead dresses, each measured and crafted to the many women that have stepped inside the manor and have been long since discarded as Reynolds has grown tired with them. Like Bluebeard, his extravagant behavior is the result of what Freud terms his ‘repressed thoughts’ and ‘desires’ (1995). He is the archetype of a traditional bourgeois man who hunts a young, pure woman and then tries to eradicate her in late in the film in an act of disobedience and perceived betrayal when she abandons the oedipal signification that Reynolds desires most. To connote further, Alma is an allegedly ordinary woman who through serving Reynolds at the seaside restaurant, scores a golden ticket to a world of impossibly fancy meals, in impossibly fancy dresses, for the rest of her life. The only condition is that she needs to avoid irritating Reynolds or she’ll be shoved out the door just like the many women before her. And if so, instead of her dead corpse, her dress made for her sits dead inside the manor along with the other discarded dresses of Reynolds previous muses. This connotation of the ‘Bluebeard’ narrative’s cyclical return and repetitions of wives evokes Freudian affiliations with the uncanny which Freud characterized in one sense as being “the constant recurrence of the same thing, the repetition of the same facial features, the same characters, the same destinies, the same misdeeds, even the same names, through successive generations”. The most symbolic of ‘Bluebeard’ in Phantom Thread being the uniform recurrent destinies of dereliction for the women that are the source of the narratives gothic horror.
In Phantom Thread, we see again connotations of a more classic fairytale; not just a folktale. We see Reynolds try to sweep his clumsy Cinderella into a world of opulent dresses, extravagant dinners and literal princesses throughout the film. Alma adopts the role of the Proppian princess in ‘Cinderella’, who wants to win Reynolds heart (Reynolds adopting the role of Prince Charming) but faces not only the implicitness of ultimate rejection but the wrath of women around her who try to sabotage her repressed desire for Reynolds, as she wants him to embody a “helpless, tender and open” partner. Bruno Bettelheim references European, African and Asian versions of ‘Cinderella’ having oedipal undertones, stating, ‘There are many examples of the ‘Cinderella’ theme in which her degradation—often without any (step)mother and (step)sisters being part of the story—is the consequence of oedipal entanglement of father and daughter’ (Bettelheim, 1976). Alma’s delineation of an idealized Reynolds as “helpless, tender and open” reverts this signification, placing what on the external surface is signified as father and daughter through their appearance (age-gap) and early disposition in the film, but on the interior is mother and son, through that of oedipal obsessions; Alma finally fits the glass slipper through her adoption of a motherly role in the relationship, fulfilling Reynolds’ repressed desire. To subvert Bettelheim’s notion further, Lady Baltimore can be said to exemplify step-sister traits seen in ‘Cinderella’, who endeavors to sabotage Reynolds’ impression of Alma at dinner by disparaging her identification to that of juvenility and immaturity, contradicting Reynolds’ wishful motherly signification of Alma. Cyril can be seen to act as a stand-in for Reynolds mother early in the film, tending to all his peculiar needs and wants. When Alma asks Reynolds if his sister ever married, Reynolds replies enigmatically, “No”. Cyril, in the perspective of Alma, is a step-mother figure. Freud deems the ‘Cinderella’ story as a method of resolution of the sexual rivalry with the mother. This sexual rivalry, in terms of the possession of Reynolds from Cyril, combined with the sexual rivalry with Countess Henrietta, Princess Mona and Lady Baltimore, forces Alma’s repressed feelings to find expression in acting out the masochistic ‘Cinderella’ phantasy. And similarly in ‘Cinderella’, we see resolution near the end of the film, where Reynolds and Alma both dance together at the New Year’s ball where their repressed unconscious yearnings become conscious.
The dancing at the New Year’s ball gives further literal aesthetical connotations to another classical fairytale – ‘Beauty and the Beast’, who’s narrative and thematic concerns run deeper in Phantom Threads’ formulation of the gothic. The film can easily be said to represent another renewal of the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story which has encountered countless transformations. The film allegorizes the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ by the agency between Alma and Reynolds representing the gothic trope of monstrosity vs compassion– Alma representing beauty in her attraction from Reynolds, who represents the beast, not only through his analogous resemblance with various renditions of a beastly figure, namely the vampire; evoking a sense of ‘the uncanny’; but with his early repressed treatment of Alma. Like in the fairytale, she sacrifices her regular, more proletarian ‘village girl’ life in order to bring Reynolds out of isolation and attain repressed sexual salvation - Alma states early in the film through voice-over, “But in his work, I become perfect and I feel just right. Maybe that’s what all women feel in his clothes.” To reciprocate, in proposing to Alma, Reynolds says he needs to marry her in order to “break a curse” – the curse being that of the sexual and emotional void left by his deceased mother. In psychanalytic terms, Bettelheim notes that ‘once detached from the parent and directed to a partner of more suitable age, in normal development, sexual longings no longer seem beastly – to the contrary, they are experienced as beautiful.’ (Zipes, 2012). The film subverts other psychoanalytic readings of ‘Beauty and Beast’, however, through substituting gender functions. Alma represents a princess that resolves her clumsiness and becomes scheming, deceptive and sexual - her intelligence matches her beauty and overpowers Reynolds - she becomes untamed in order to tame him. Instead of Alma finding sexual and emotional salvation by sacrificing herself to emotional repression from Reynolds; she assaults taboo in order to control and dominate Reynolds through his food poisoning, liberating her repressed emotional desires for a “helpless, tender and open” partner, in turn, complicating notions of patriarchy. Reynolds accepts the sexual reality in order to eradicate the curse of repressed feelings and infantile fears.
Phantom Thread’s gothic elements are further augmented through fairytale, with Alma and Reynolds adopting the roles of human and animal in ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and the Wolf, both aesthetically and allegorically. Alma wearing a long red dress, detailed with gold buttons on her first date with Reynolds (although without a hood) is symbolic of the heroine of Little Red Riding Hood. The red dress signifies Alma operating with her ‘ego’, balancing the ‘superego’ and ‘Id’ (2019); Freudian contents of human psyche relating with balancing repressed thoughts and instincts. Like in ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, the red dress is emblematic of Alma accentuating menstruation and sexual maturity towards Reynolds. Bettlelheim notes that Little Red Riding Hood’s little red cape ‘takes up some crucial problems the school-age girl has to solve if oedipal attachments linger on in the unconscious.’ (Bettelheim, 1989). Alma’s youthfulness coupled with her Red Riding Hood garment, thus, according to psychoanalysis, drive her to expose herself dangerously to Reynolds’ seduction; dangerous because of his later, cyclical emotional oppression. ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ further posits notions of maternal subject, not only towards to wolf, but towards the grandmother. Cyril can be seen to represent the grandmother figure who is a competitor for Alma in the attainment of Reynolds’ attention. Alma has to defy Cyril, representing too the superego, in order to gain personal autonomy, equivalently with Little Red Riding Hood leading the wolf unconsciously to devour of her grandmother. However, Alma learns not to rebel against the grandmother figure as her repressed sexual desires will be threatened – signified through Alma defying Cyril’s advice about not surprising Reynolds and disturbing his rituals, subsequently endangering her relationship when he threatens her at dinner, affirming his monstrosity and irrationality over Alma’s rationality. A prominent critic of Freud, Erich Fromm, notes in the end of Grimm’s version of the fairytale, we see the ’triumph of man-hating women who mock the wolf’s sterility by filling his belly with stones’ (Fromm, 1952). In Phantom Thread, however, we see the film end with the triumph of man-loving Alma, mocking Reynolds’s sterility and temperament by filling his belly with poisonous mushrooms in order to tame him - eliciting a paradoxical relationship with the Oedipus myth where actually, the female emerges victorious through control.
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Phantom Thread is a modern-gothic text, referring to and subverting past notions of fairytale conventions in order to expose the films gothic tendency. The film metaphorically references folk and classic fairytales such as ‘Bluebeard’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in order to conjure the films gothic romance and horror. In drawing upon these classic tales the film elicits what Laura Hubner refers to when citing gothic films that draw upon the fairytale, as ‘everyday horrors and real life atrocities’ which can be ‘alluded to on a symbolic or metaphorical level, opening up a dialogue with the repressed and sometimes taboo subject matter’ (Hubner, 2017). Through reading Phantom Thread’s narrative and thematic references of fairytales through psychoanalysis, we are able to see the dexterity of internal, unconscious, repressed and even oedipal signification within the characters of Alma and Reynolds that are the source of the films deeper-running gothic disposition. Reynolds adopts the role of Bluebeard, the beast and the wolf in order to evoke impressions of a cyclical untamed, irrational, unconscious and internalized repression that affects both the instability of himself, and of Alma. Alma, contrarily, adopts and subverts the role of the princess within these folk and classic fairytales in order to evoke impressions of compassion, rationality and civility and their opposites that contest Reynolds monstrosity. Her subversion of the psychoanalytic readings of female identification within fairytales not only complicates feminist enquiry, but also, exudes further gothic signification, permitting her unconscious repressed desires, that corrupt oedipal connotations, to manifest the films gothic horror on a symbolic and metaphorical level.
- Armitt, L. (1997) ‘The fragile frames of The Bloody Chamber’ in Bristow, J. and Broughton, T. (eds) The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism. (London: Routledge), p.89.
- Bettelheim, B (1976) The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and the Importance of Fairy Tales. (New York: Knopf), p.245.
- Bettelheim, B. (1989) ‘Little Red Cap and the Pubertal Girl’ in Dundes, A (ed) Little Red Riding Hood: A Casebook. (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press), p.172.
- Freud, S. (1995). ’”The interpretation of Dreams” (1899) in The Interpretation of Dreams, translated by A. A. Brill (London: Hogarth Press).
- Freud, S. (2003). ‘“The Uncanny” (1919), in The Uncanny, translated by D. MacLintock (London: Penguin Classics).
- Freud, S. (2019). ‘”The Ego and the Id” (1923), in The Ego and the Id, translated by H. Correll (USA: Clydesdale Press).
- Fromm, E. (1952). The Forgotten language, an introduction to the Understanding of Dreams, Fairy Tales and Myths. (London: V. Gollancz).
- Hubner, L. (2018). Fairytale and Gothic Horror: Uncanny Transformations in Film. (London: Palgrave Macmillan), p.39.
- Zipes, J. (2012). Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. (Hoboken: Taylor and Francis), p.47.
- Phantom Thread. 2017. (Film) Paul Thomas Anderson, Dir. United States: Focus Features.
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