Phantom Thread – Controlling Narcissist and the Trauma Bond

Phantom Thread is a 2017 movie directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the Controlling Narcissist (Reynolds), Vicky Krieps as the Victim in his trauma bond (Alma) and Lesley Manville as his sister, and dominant female ally (Cyril). The film is well-done in many respects, showing the trauma bond that is created between perpetrator and victim. However, there are some key moments where I felt that Daniel and Vicky came out of character. One scene was him giggling with her in the bathroom, with bowl on his lap and asking her to kiss him. It didn’t feel real to me. Another scene was when she was telling him about the egg dish and again there seemed to be an odd moment between the actors. I was also confused about how the director brought us into the movie. Was there another woman at the beginning of the film that was his girlfriend (I thought his wife, due to the time period) or was this Vicky’s character and we are later going back in time when he meets her in the next scene? We also hear Alma talking to some guy that we will later learn is Reynolds doctor. It was confusing because we see her (the girlfriend) for a brief moment, get to know the character Reynolds, his sister and then suddenly he is meeting his victim or next one, Alma and says he is not married. I already knew he was a controlling narcissist by now but not sure about the women.

So, despite the incongruities in storytelling, let’s examine the characters. Narcissists come in two types, overt and covert. Overt narcissists are pretty obvious, covert they are not. I had a hard time choosing with Reynolds character which to go with. He seems in between both. The character Reynolds seems like a covert narcissist because he comes across shy and introverted when he meets Alma. It doesn’t take too long before he drops the act and becomes an arrogant controlling narcissist. Overt’s are more obvious, that they are narcissists, and you sense the egoism and it is all about me right away. That is why I didn’t want to think covert with Reynolds because he didn’t play the game too much. As far as we know, it was one conversation between he and the victim. The covert plays a much longer game then one day. He is more dangerous though in building the trauma bond and I feel coverts tend to be more dangerous than overts.

He has the dominant female – his sister – who is the priority in his life. Narcissists never give this role to the intimate partner because this would be too intimate for them to allow. They need a sense of being detached to the priority female. They reject intimacy and we see this in the way that he shows Alma “her room,” early into the relationship. Like in the movie “Corridor of Mirrors,” which is clearly about a covert narcissist, sex isn’t the most important part of these men’s lives. They also have to take advantage of their partner, so there has to be another woman who takes the lead. Cyril is running his business and because she is his sister, she has been with him since childhood and knows all his quirks. She doesn’t seem to know her power with Reynolds except in one moment at the breakfast table where she lets him know she is boss. It wasn’t convincing enough for me and I felt they should have shown this on more than one occasion so that we knew, that after all these years, she wasn’t just now putting her foot down. After all, the sister and brother are in their 60’s I am guessing. Alma is supposed to be in her 20’s by the way, 30’s at most.

With regard to sex and the narcissist, it is about them (the narcissist) in bed, not the woman. A covert narcissist might play the “people pleaser” in life and the bedroom but they aren’t really in the bed with you. They have no ability to be “attached” to their partner because this would involve intimacy and give and take. They can act out sex and play the role of sex, but there is no love and intimacy and adoration. When Reynolds shows Alma “her room,” it is because he is aloof about women in the home. He is used to this and has a room set aside for all women, not just Alma. He refers to by saying “This is your room,” to make it seem like he is giving a gift. It is not seen as a gift by Alma because she is waiting to be seduced. He is only seducing her by acting out (though the narcissist is not acting) that he doesn’t want sex. If he wants sex, you will give it and he will say “Okay.” You have to seduce him and go for it. Most likely he won’t turn you down but he is just acting. Again, this is not an intimate or equal experience. You will never be made love to.

Reynolds has a momma’s boy complex. He has to talk about his mother all the time. He has to have his sister in his life 24/7 so she lives with him and manages the design business. He carries a locket of his mother’s hair woven into the breast of his suit jacket. That sounded a bit odd to me because he doesn’t wear the same jacket every day, so the storyline was jaded there too. If he had said “I sew a little pocket that I can affix each day to my jacket [that I choose to wear],” this would make more sense but for a fashion designer, I am not buying his line [as spoken]. Nonetheless, he is obsessed with mom and sister fulfills a role as substitute mom. Alma, in this movie, wants to take over in this role.

I am curious and would love to know the back story of Reynolds. How did he become a momma’s boy and did his mother really devote herself to him or did he fantasize this? A narcissist is created due to the absence of love and nurturance from a parent. We do know that his father was absent because she remarries when he is 16 (and I believe she asked him to sew the dress, or he offered). It is possible, Reynolds mother overcompensated for the loss of his father and babied him. It is also possible she did this until she married and then was focused on the new man. We will never know because this is fiction. These theories are very likely though because a male narcissist is often developed due to a missing father.

Alma’s accent is used but they never mention her cultural background. A narcissist wouldn’t really care anyway as it is about them, not you. Vicky, who play’s Alma, is from Luxembourg. They speak French/German. At one point, one of the other character’s mentions “people from her country,” but that is about it on cultural references. I believe Alma says something in French at one point, to that same character, who responds in English to demean her and align with Reynolds. The problem with narcissists, who know and have women around them, is that the women make life even more unbearable for the victim.

Alma is a waitress when Reynolds meets her but then somehow is a seamstress quite quickly, though you are not quite sure how much time is going by in this movie. Reynolds is an established fashion house, so he has quite a plethora of experienced older women. It is a role Alma seems to glide into so she can be by Reynold’s side 24/7, like his sister. Though she is certainly not needed by the fashion house, it seems that the seamstresses tolerate her or even feel sorry for her I felt in one scene. The older women were guiding her to work on a hem in a somewhat affectionate tone.

Reynolds personality, I had said earlier was controlling and arrogant. He is established in his career, famous, and can get what he wants. Being a control freak is something traumatized people do to feel comfortable in their world around them. The degree to which they have control has to do with how much power is given to them by their talent’s or celebrity world that they live in. In the celebrity world, a sense of entitlement is granted the more well-known you are. With him, you get the feeling that you can’t go to the bathroom unless he has decided it is time for this. They don’t show his control to this degree, only at the breakfast table but that is enough to assume everything is dictated by his needs and wants. No one seems happy around him. Everyone seems to understand their place and wants to keep their jobs. He appears to have the best seamstresses though – which would be why his work would be so well-known. He is the designer not the crafter.

Alma realizes mid-way through the movie that Reynolds has a weakness. She notices early on that he has a penchant for being babied when he is going through a depressive phase. Alma has been studying mushrooms and decides to play around with possibly killing him. She doesn’t but he becomes deathly ill and she has control over his life. Reynolds doesn’t have the strength to fight this with his sister so Alma essentially wins. By the time we get to the end of the movie, Alma has decided to play the mushroom game again. It seems obvious that Reynolds is in on this, even before she tells him what she has done. The trauma bond has become a game of power and control – which I suspect narcissists love, when it is on both sides. Odd that they like a challenge but they know they are the winner either way. Alma believes she has won something by creating this time of having power over Reynolds. She ends up with a baby, that will no doubt become a narcissist as it is highly unlikely the father will be able to nurture or love the baby. Since Alma is not a therapist, she has no idea what she is really getting herself into. She will no doubt be a single parent, in a sense, with Cyril as the doting Aunt.

Reynolds preparing a dress for Alma early on into the trauma bond.

Make no mistake, the trauma bond like this, is a sick game. The narcissist loves it, the victim sells their soul for it.

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