Phantom Thread (2017) has some wild twists towards the end, but the whole film makes sense when viewed through the lens of love languages.
If you’re not familiar with the five love languages, read this. Basically, love languages is the idea that different people give and receive love in different ways – touch, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, and quality time. Very often, problems arise in relationships because each person is speaking a different love language.
Daniel Day Lewis’s character communicates love through acts of service. His love interest played by Vicky Krieps wants love through quality time. That’s why at she complains they never have any time alone, and he shouts that he gives everything to her. His dressmaking is an act of service he has devoted his enitre life too, and the fact he makes her his primary model and muse is the highest expression of love he has.
He falls for her when she is able to perform a very complex act of service from memory. He takes the order from her pad as a test – can she keep track of his precise demands from memory? When she shows she can, he sees her as a relationship material. On their first date when he measures her it plays like a love scene, because creating for her is his biggest act of love.
However, Lewis’s character is actually a hypersensitive person. His senses pick up every little sound she makes. He might even be on the spectrum. It makes him “fussy” but it’s also what allows him to create dresses with the level of detail and quality he does. Even his fast driving could be an autistic attempt to “stim” or give an intense point of focus for his senses.
So when his wife tries to provide an act of service for him making a surprise dinner, he appreciates the gesture, but his hypersensitivity makes him unable to receive the gesture, and her unable to to be sensitive to his particular tastes. He is such a master of acts of service, and so hypersensitive, no one create for him the way he creates for others. He is extremely frustrated by it, and so is she.
(Sidenote: When I realized the film was about the relationship between a hyper-sensitive artist and a his muse, I immediately assumed the film had to be inspired by something auto-biographical. IMDB trivia confirms it was.)
In the end however, he is only able to receive her act of service when (spoilers) she poisons him.
Lewis’s character desperately wants to receive from his mother what he gave to her. It’s clear his dress-making as an act of service began in childhood when he made his mother’s wedding dress. He has some enmeshment with her, to the point where he carries a lock of her hair sewn into his coat.
The first time his love-interest poisons him, he sees his mother in the room as a ghost. Krieps character enters, and the three of them hold the same space. Then his mother disappears and his love-interest takes her place. The next day, he asks Vicky Krieps character to marry him. She takes on the emotional role his mother played.
It’s unclear at this point if he knows she poisoned him, but at the end, he is a willing participate. She tells him to his face that she wants him helpless, on his back, with only her to help him. He eats her poison willingly.
This puts him in the position where he is able to actually receive her act of service, and reverses the role he had as a child. Instead of giving himself in an act of service to his mother, someone is giving themselves in an act of service to him, completing the lingering emotional need created in childhood. His hypersensitivity and independence is so dulled by sickness that he is actually able to receive her.
And so in a weird way, their “poison-kink” becomes what makes the relationship work. By poisoning him, she can feel needed and spend quality time with him – which is what she wants – and he can receive her love in an almost maternal act of service – which is what he wants.
Watch the film with someone you want to talk relationships with. You’ll learn a lot.