Leave it to director Paul Thomas Anderson to make a romantic movie unlike one we have ever seen before. Instead of a conventional love story, Anderson crafts a romance that verges on the toxic and unconventional… yet is still tender and affectionate. Despite their questionable antics, we cannot help but fall in love with our protagonists, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps). Their romance revolves around more than love, it relies on a heavily mutual reliance. Their deep, inherent need for each other overshadows their love for each other, culminating in a strange yet fascinating infatuation that simultaneously offers a fresh and timeless romantic drama.
Set in the 1950s British fashion world, Woodcock reigns as one of the leading designers. His life is, for him, ideal. He works on his projects (dresses, mainly), he uses female suitors as creative muses and sexual outlets, and has his live-in sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) throw them out after he’s lost interest. His world is turned on its head when he meets Alma, a woman suited to his liking and artistic creativity that refuses to be just another woman to him. Once their relationship has reached the point where his previous ventures typically ended, Alma stands her ground in an attempt to maintain a spot in the house. Intriguing to Reynolds since she is the first to do it, her constant presence and irritating habits prove more of an annoyance than a joy. Gradually growing more and more resentful over her, Reynolds’ act changes once he comes down with a severe illness. He then sees Alma in a different light: as a caretaker – a motherly figure, in fact.
This sets a plan into motion. Once Reynolds is cured, he is back to his cynical, overbearing self. After yet another fight, to bring him back down a peg, Alma poisons him by putting just the right amount of bad mushrooms in his food. It isn’t enough to kill him, but it’s certainly enough to make him bed-ridden and dependent on Alma. This forms a different role in their relationship where Alma can have the upper hand any time she wishes; the moment Reynolds is getting to be too much for her, she has an anecdote. She likes to be needed by him – in fact, she needs to be needed by him.
This plays into an aspect that is brought to the viewer’s attention early in the film: Reynolds and Cyril’s mother. She is long dead but still haunts our protagonist’s life; he was never good enough for her – at least in his eyes. Though we are not given much insight into what his mother was like, we have two very good clues, one being Reynolds, himself. If the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, one can assume that his mother was just as finicky, set in her ways, and hard to please. Another clue is Cyril. Being her daughter, Cyril is the closest thing to his mother that he has left and it is fairly evident that he aims to please her just as much. Despite being the independent man that he is, it is fascinating to see Reynolds’ obsession with pleasing two of the greatest influences in his life.
A fascinating scene that goes along with this is Reynold’s vision he has of his mother while sick. He lays in bed and sees her on the other side of the room, standing motionless. He confesses how much he misses her and how great of a hole she has left in his life. When Alma checks in on him, Reynolds’ mother remains in the room – only visible to him. It’s unsettling yet tender at the same time.
The parallels between the vision and Alma are no accident. There is an obvious Oedipal side to Reynolds’ relationship toward Alma, though he might never have realized it. Longing to be cared for despite insisting on his own independence, all it took was a woman to stand her ground to finally reach him. Given Cyril’s personality and what we can gather about his mother, this is the type of woman Reynolds cannot help but be drawn to. It opens up a different kind of love, one that is no longer just sexual or even just romantic. It depends on the company felt by having another caring human being by your side, an unconditional love that knows no bounds.
It is a strange relationship and the power dynamic between the two constantly switches. Whether this is good for them or if it is even healthy is certainly arguable. More than just mutual attraction, their reliance on each other goes further than the typical romance. They both need each other equally, whether they are willing to admit it or not. Though it might not be ideal for either of them, they’ve made it work.