Mealtime minefield: The fraught breakfast table in “Phantom Thread” (©FOCUS FEATURES)
In The Shape of Water, this year’s Oscar-winner for Best Picture, our heroine Elisa Esposito bonds with “The Asset”, an amphibious fish-man who may be a river god, by offering him some of her lunch: a hard-boiled egg. She shows her love for her friend and next-door neighbour, a struggling commercial artist, by bringing him food every day: again, a sandwich and a boiled egg. Meanwhile, her friend and neighbour Giles, a struggling commercial artist, has developed a terrible crush on a pie-shop worker (“Pie Guy” in the credits), and orders a slice of key lime pie every day, hoping to be remembered. The pie itself is wobbly, gelatinous, almost teal-coloured, and leaves bright green stains on the tongue. It turns out to be horrid — as does Pie Guy himself. The fish-man is more amenable: Elisa’s egg-gifts escalate until she’s boiling them by the dozen and lining them up on the edge of his tank. And in Call Me By Your Name — which had multiple Oscar nominations — a character notoriously takes out his sexual frustration on a peach. The scene is taken from the novel on which the film is based; the director, Luca Guadagnino, originally thought it was supposed to be a metaphor. Food always seems to be either a sign of affection or a stand-in for other appetites.
But the best food film recently is Phantom Thread, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a London couturier. Tiring of his mistress, Woodcock refuses to eat the icing-covered pastry she offers him at breakfast, declaring, “No more sludgy things!” He leaves it to his austere sister Cyril to get the girl to leave. But when he sees a waitress, Alma (played by Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps), in a countryside tea-shop his appetite returns and he gives her an extravagant, epically drawn-out breakfast order: “A Welsh rarebit, with a poached egg on top — not too runny — bacon, scones . . . butter . . . cream . . . jam — not strawberry.” Lapsang souchong tea and sausages as well. (The order briefly became a meme on Twitter.) He makes her commit the order to memory, and keeps her handwritten list; she leaves him a note calling him a “hungry boy”.
The scene pushes on that food-and-feelings idea so far that it becomes unsettling. How hungry is too hungry? When they first have dinner together, Woodcock actually dips his finger into the jug of custard served with Alma’s pudding.
As the film progresses meals become battles. Woodcock must never be interrupted and breakfast is a silent, sacrosanct time. His whims are protected in every way by Cyril — “If breakfast isn’t right, it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day.” His housekeeper later explains to Alma that mushrooms must be cooked in a whisper of butter, no more. Reynolds hates too much butter. Cream on porridge is “naughty”.
But Alma, unlike his previous women, tends to push back. Accused of having “no taste” by Reynolds, she retorts: “Maybe I like my own taste.” She butters her toast too loudly. The sound designers have worked to make each crunch and scrape as maddening as possible. Accused of “moving too much” at breakfast, she replies, “Maybe you’re paying too much attention.” Cries Woodcock, “It’s like you just rode a horse across the room!” (I should mention that the film is very, very funny: “Chic? Oh, don’t you start using that filthy little word!”)
The exact year is never specified. If it’s set in the mid-1950s, rationing in the UK has only recently ended, but Alma — poorer, younger, self-evidently European — is certain to have been through wartime deprivation. We never learn anything about her background. The closest thing to a clue is the expression on her face as a peripheral character is asked about accusations that he enriched himself by selling visas to Jews during the war.
When Alma senses Reynolds’s attention is drifting away from her, she hatches a plot to get him alone for an evening — her plan is to cook for him. It goes horribly wrong when she gives him asparagus with melted butter. Microexpressions of agony flit across his face. He aggressively salts the asparagus on his plate. Finally Alma asks what the problem is. He explodes: “As I think you know, Alma, I prefer my asparagus with oil and salt. Knowing this, you have prepared the asparagus with butter. Right now I’m just admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you’ve prepared it.”
How does Alma persuade him that he needs her, even though he continually tells her that he doesn’t? (Don’t read on if you don’t want the denouement to be spoiled.) The solution to their relationship is (but of course!) light poisoning: Alma spikes Reynolds’s tea with poisonous mushrooms gathered from the woods, rendering him temporarily helpless and dependent on her. (Reminiscent, actually, of the ending of Jane Eyre.) Mushrooms are a spooky food even when not poisonous — they have strange textures, they spring from nowhere, they hide in the undergrowth, and the part we eat is just the fruit of a vast, unseen subterranean organism. (Elsewhere in Phantom Thread there are ghosts, curses, and talismans sewn into the hems of dresses or linings of coats: it really is a fairytale, as The Shape of Water is, but a much weirder one.) The climactic scene features a luscious-looking mushroom omelette, which Alma cooks with not one but two lumps of butter. And we discover as she cooks it that the poisoning is consensual: Reynolds knows what she’s doing and is anticipating it with some kind of pleasure. It’s very romantic, I promise you. (Cue discussion on the internet of whether calling this relationship unhealthy is “kinkshaming”.) His attention is finally on her — understanding reached via omelette. In this case the mushroom is the message.