It's a term that's repeated ad nauseam in both David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers ('88) and Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread ('17), and for good reason. There's an eye for the female form that dominates the brains of both twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons), as well as couture master Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). The first time we meet Elliot, he comments to movie star patient Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold), "I've often thought that they should hold beauty contests for the insides of bodies." Where Woodcock is drawn to draping extravagant garments on women, the Mantles are peering through their private parts, intimately diagnosing what they see. No two bodies or dresses are the same, and that singularity fascinates all three parties.
However, it's the theme of symbiosis that truly ties the narratives of Dead Ringers and Phantom Thread together (pun somewhat intended), as Cronenberg and Anderson explore how distinct, unbreakable bonds form over the course of our closest relationships. For the Mantles, their inseparability is clear from frame one - as the young Canadian twins ask the little girl down the lane if she'll have sex with them "as an experiment". Naturally, she tells the two "freaks" to fuck off, but this tiny indignity doesn't deter the brothers from continuing to experience everything together throughout the rest of their lives, as if bound at the hip. They study medicine together, share awards for instrumental innovation together, start their gynecology practice (the Mantle Clinic) together, and even end up sharing Claire - a regular routine initiated by the cool and confident Elliot, whom Beverly then impersonates after his brother "tries them out" and delivers a seal of approval. It's a rather icky system that frequently benefits the timid "Bevy", who we get the impression wouldn't be able to engage in such carnal congress otherwise.
Reynolds enjoys a similar - albeit non-sexual - relationship with his sister Cyril (Lesly Manville), whom he's managed his fashion empire (the House of Woodcock) with for the better part of his lifetime. When we first meet Reynolds, it's clear that he wouldn't be able to function properly if not for his "old so-and-so", as she instructs him that it’s time to break up with his current partner, who he's obviously grown bored with. She shoos the former model – who’s become less “beautiful” due to waiting around and eating too much – off with the October dress they designed for her (a pithy parting gift), before instructing the artist to take a weekend in the country, where he meets the bumbling but beautiful waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps).
After testing the server with his breakfast order - practically requesting half the menu before taking Alma’s notepad away and seeing if she can memorize it - he invites the girl to dinner and then back to his place, where a chat by the fireplace transforms into taking her measurements. Smack dab in the middle of this oddly professional moment of intimacy, Cyril arrives, sniffs the waitress to obtain her scent, before plopping in a chair and jotting Reynolds' dictations, right down to Alma "not having any breasts". Even in love, Cyril is there.
There's a need both the Mantles and Reynolds establish between themselves and their clients (not to mention partners) that transmutes into desire. The Mantles specialize in infertility; making women who cannot conceive feel "whole" again through procedures which enable them to create life. There are multiple scenes in Cronenberg's picture where the two are being pled with by patients, and a certain bedside manner is required - which Beverly possesses, and Elliot does not - to comfort them when it becomes clear that no amount of hormone therapy or operations are going to reinstate conception. At an awards ceremony - as Bev slides deeper and deeper into depression and addiction following his affair with Claire - it's made abundantly clear to their peers this intimacy is often acted upon by the brothers sexually, a gross violation of ethics in the name of pleasure that’s weirdly shrugged off by the gynecological community.
In a similar fashion, Reynolds' goal is to make women feel "beautiful" with his clothing. It's the element of his work that he hits upon again and again, even referring to the necessity of certain fabrics not because of their style or texture, but simply because they're "beautiful". Even after their first date, Alma informs us (though her conversation/narration with Dr. Hardy [Brian Gleeson]) that she suddenly understood how empowered the women who wear his clothes feels. Though he's never invading their bodies in the same way the Mantles are, Reynolds Woodcock is psychically creating a symbiotic bond between himself and those who choose to seek him out for a couture fitting. It's partially why both he and Alma become so offended when benefactor Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris) decides to sleep in the gown he crafts for her arranged marriage. She's disrespecting not only the physical art, but the emotional thread he's woven through the garment.
Being a quietly wise woman, Alma recognizes what these clothes mean to the women who wear them, and it becomes a point of jealousy for her during certain moments in her relationship with Reynolds. When the House of Woodcock is contracted to create the wedding gown for Princess Mona Braganza (Lujza Richter), Alma watches from a distance as this individual tie is formed once again. While the designer has been there to provide the woman with a garment for every major moment in her life - fashion father figure from baptism to her adult union - Alma still feels the need to not only confront the Princess (stating that she lives in the house where Her Highness is currently being fitted), but also arrange a quiet romantic evening with her beau that ends disastrously. "Are you afraid that I don't need you?" Reynolds asks, before venomously stating he doesn't, sending Alma off to concoct a literally poisonous act that will become a kinky staple of their togetherness moving forward.
Beverly's spiral into addiction after providing Claire with pills leads to the siblings’ ultimate synchronicity. Unable to bear his "baby brother" not being by his side - relaying the story of the first Siamese twins Eng and Chang perishing immediately after separation - Elliot begins to down drugs so that they can yet again be sharing the same experience. It's a literalizing of the notion Elliot states early on, which guides their entire existence: "you haven't done anything until I've done it, too."
Even when Claire returns and weens Bev back to health, he wanders to the Mantle Clinic and discovers his brother barricaded inside, having turned the sterile office into his own personal den of sin. The only way for Bev to escape is to kill his twin, using one of the grotesque stainless-steel instruments he commissioned from local artist Anders Wolleck (Stephen Lack) for operating on "mutant women". "Separation can be terrifying," he says before plunging the shiny tool into Elliot’s belly, only to later join his sibling in the afterlife through a purposeful overdose, their bodies draped across one another in replication of the Chinese doubles. Poor Eli. Poor Bev.
Alma achieves a comparable level of interdependence with Reynolds, by poisoning him with wild mushrooms she cooks into his food. This causes the artist to become violently ill, and Alma nurses him back to life, going as far as to keep Cyril out of his bedroom as she tends to his fever and sweaty clothes. This act of aggression becomes a method through which Alma can remind Reynolds that he does, in fact, "need" her. After he fully recovers, the near-death experience - which came complete with visions of his dead mother (Emma Clandon) in the wedding dress he designed for her - instills a desire to marry Alma and quit wasting any more time while he's still alive. Suddenly, this "cursed" man - who confessed to never wanting nuptials during their initial night together - cannot be without this woman, and symbiosis has been achieved.
Beyond demonstrating the way power can shift inside a relationship - as Reynolds states earlier that he will only gift Alma breasts via a dress if he chooses to - these mushrooms become an almost kinky act of submission on the designer’s part. After their honeymoon, and multiple petty annoyances pile up, Reynolds confesses to Cyril that he's made a "terrible mistake" in deciding to share his life with Alma (a declaration his new bride walks in on). This leads to another round of poisoning, only Alma prepares the fungus inside a buttery omelet while Reynolds watches from the table. He takes his first bite and, before swallowing, the cook informs him of what's about to transpire:
"I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open with only me to help. And then I want you strong again. You're not going to die. You might wish you're going to die, but you're not going to. You need to settle down a little."
It's a declaration of devotion, but also an admission of necessity. In order for their relationship to continue and remain robust, Reynolds needs to be retold what Alma truly is to him: both a lover and a care-taker, who will always be there whenever he falls ill, to ensure he's back up on his feet, making women feel "beautiful" once again. As Jonny Greenwood's lush score swells and becomes overwhelming, Day-Lewis delivers a line that reaches transcendent heights: "kiss me, my girl, before I'm sick." Abruptly, it's clear: just as the Mantles drifted off into the afterlife together, Alma and Reynolds will be one in this world and the next, a union that can only grow stronger through time, and whose secrets only they know, like the little notes this master craftsman leaves in the lining of his garments.
Dead Ringers is currently available on Blu-ray via Scream Factory, and Phantom Thread is playing in theaters now.