Breakfast scenes are ideal for showing the power exchanges in a relationship
Phantom Thread is the breakfast film of the year. This may initially seem counterintuitive: Isn’t it supposed to be about fashion? It stars Daniel Day Lewis as couturier Reynolds Woodcock in 1950s England. What does that have to do with breakfast?
Throughout the film, director Paul Thomas Anderson uses multiple breakfast scenes to illustrate Woodcock’s fastidiousness and the prickly nature of his relationship with Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who becomes not only his muse, but an exceedingly perverse sparring partner, and his stoic sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). A cut of Phantom Thread featuring only breakfast scenes would give you a good idea of Woodcock’s psychology and the strange relationship he has with Alma.
In the first breakfast scene, Woodcock huffily ends a relationship with a woman who offers him pastries. “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation,” he snaps. Breakfast is one of Woodcock’s most reliable rituals: a neatly set table, a pot of tea, his sister sitting, always with a knowing look on her face, and even the slightest disruption to this morning routine strikes the designer as a grievous offense. Any changes to Woodcock’s usual breakfast must be sanctioned by the man himself.
Soon, at a hotel restaurant, he meets Alma, and instantly takes an interest in her, as evidenced by the ridiculously long order he gives: Welsh rarebit with a poached egg, bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam, a pot of Lapsang souchong tea, and sausages. This order, which seems like a parody of the proper English breakfast, is Woodcock’s first attempt at playing mind games with Alma. Taking away the paper on which she’s written his order, he asks in a smarmy, flirting tone, “Will you remember?” She will. When he asks her to dinner, she accepts with a note reading “To the hungry boy.” Not only will she remember the order, she’ll be at the breakfast table with him many times more.
As Alma becomes Woodcock’s muse, we begin to see that she’s just as odd a character as he is. The couple trade passive aggressive insults, and Alma quickly finds that the breakfast table is a site of contention. In the first breakfast scene we see with Alma, Woodcock, and Cyril at their home, Alma spreads butter on her toast and clanks the teapot and utensils as Woodcock looks on in barely concealed disgust. The sound of her knife on the toast is exaggerated and calculated to be irritating, like nails on a chalkboard. Woodcock complains, and when Alma suggests he ignore it, he answers, “It’s hard to ignore. It’s as if you just rode a horse across the room.” Alma may lack Woodcock’s upper crust carriage, but she’s a sly woman: She’s not going to concede to her partner, whether at the breakfast table, or in the atelier, where she curtly says, “Maybe I like my own taste.”
Cyril then offers Alma a key to her brother’s personality. “If breakfast isn’t right,” she says, “it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day.” Woodcock lives an exceedingly structured life. He wouldn’t be caught dead skipping breakfast or having a quick bite in his studio. Anderson revels in the discomfort his breakfast scenes cause. Alma’s knife scrape is so loud the volume must have been turned up in the mix, and every time we see the breakfast table, with its elegant place settings, it gives us a feeling of dread: What kind of wildly uncomfortable situation will we see now?
Breakfast is a site of power exchange. Alma’s ability to frustrate Woodcock with her noisy tea and toast becomes a point of pride. By the time we hear her scrape her knife and watch her inelegantly scoop cereal into her mouth during a breakfast on her honeymoon with Woodcock, it’s apparent that she has the upper hand. Woodcock can do nothing but look at his new wife in horror.
Where would Alma and Woodcock be without breakfast? The meal was responsible for their first meeting, their many tiffs, and their gradual power shifts. As Orson Welles showed in the montage of breakfast scenes between the title character and his first wife in Citizen Kane, the early morning routine is an ideal place to show the dissolution of a marriage. Phantom Thread, with its stately setting in the past and domineering male lead, builds on this idea, moving it to extremes of borderline comic discomfort. The relationship at the center of the film is challenging and the breakfast table is a battlefield. The staid ritual of tea and toast becomes aggressive, and as much as the sounds and expressions may make us cringe, we can’t stop looking and nervously laughing at the tensions that manifest during a meal more often associated with quiet reflection.