What brings a couple together? And what is it that, in spite of all the forces pulling in the opposite direction, keeps them together?
Even if as therapists we work with one other person in the room rather than two, I suspect these questions are never far from our minds — if only in terms of thinking about the therapeutic relationship. It goes without saying that in nearly all cases they are also of paramount importance to our clients. So it is for the wider culture we live in, as a glance at the magazines we flick through, the novels we read and the films and TV programmes we watch will confirm.
My aim in this article is not to answer these questions directly but to observe how they feature prominently in three films released since the start of the year which have all been popular as well as critical successes and which between them won a total of seven Oscars.
First, though, a bit of theory which anyone who has trained as a couples psychotherapist will be familiar with. This is the idea of the ‘shared fantasy’, seen as the basis not only of what attracts Jack to Jill and vice versa in the first place, but also of what enables them to sustain a relationship over a number of years and even decades encompassing varying degrees of intimacy and distance.
For both partners, the fantasy itself will derive from much earlier patterns of intimate relating with caregivers and other family members, and may take shape around a wish to perpetuate these patterns or, conversely, to avoid them at all costs. For the same reason that there is unlikely to be any conscious memory of these patterns, so neither Jack nor Jill will be aware of the need they have both to live out a scenario of their own scripting and to find the right person to play the starring role in this production opposite them. As therapists we are given the privilege of front-row seats to the unfolding of this fantasy week by week, scene by scene, and sooner or later may find ourselves wondering what genre of film this is and even what its title might be.
The winner of this year’s Oscar for best picture, The Shape of Water, rejoices in the fact that it is essentially a sci-fi fairy-tale set in a Cold War America straight out of the comic-books. In view of this, it would be unwise to probe too deeply into the love that blossoms between the creature-from-the-lagoon amphibian held captive by the military and the film’s unlikely heroine, a physically and psychologically scarred mute, who succeeds in freeing him. The main question about their relationship audiences are teasingly encouraged to ask is: how does this pair have sex? To which my reply would be how can they have anything else when there is no way for them to communicate.
Yet we are still drawn to believe in them as a couple. And I think this owes much to their clear shared fantasy, formed from experiences of suffering and dreams of rescue. The fact that they have no words for this fantasy makes it all the more powerful. But I don’t suppose there will be a sequel to this film because it’s hard to imagine what development there could be in the relationship between these Water Babies.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is on the face of it a tougher, more true-to-life film. For most of it, a mother unable to mourn the loss of her teenage daughter, harries the local police force to find the man who raped and killed her. To begin with Frances McDormand (who received the best actress Oscar for this role) comes over as persecuted by their indifference to her plight. This changes to avenging fury as responsibility for the case passes from an idealised good cop to a brutally bad one played by Sam Rockwell (who won the award for best supporting actor).
What happens in the last 15 minutes of the film is that, quite unexpectedly, his pain — at the loss first of his job and then very nearly of his life after he is savagely beaten up — starts to eclipse hers. It ends abruptly as the two of them are setting off, guns at the ready, on the trail of someone we learn probably wasn’t her daughter’s murderer. This leaves us wondering about the couple they might be turning into and the nature of the shared fantasy that seems to be bringing them together. Other interpretations are possible, but to my mind this is based on unprocessed mourning and I see them becoming potentially murderous partners-in-crime. They’ll be fine together so long as they don’t run out of victims.
The third film is Phantom Thread. The Oscar this won was for best costume design, which is appropriate given that its main character is a leading society couturier from the period after the War who believes appearances are everything. But this is many ways a much darker and bleaker film than the other two — even if with its cursed wedding-dresses, needles that prick and forbidden foods from the forest it too has the atmosphere of a fairy-story at times.
The last thing Reynolds Woodcock would seem to need is a partner. He is married several times over already — to his genius, his hugely successful business and to the memory of his beloved mother. Alma, the gamine European girl who enters his life as a waitress, turns out to be the perfect model for his perfect dresses and shares his appetite for fast cars and hard work too. But her appetite for him only triggers his narcissistic defences and we wonder how long it will be before he casts her aside.
Just as that seems about to happen, Alma stumbles on a way of making him truly need her. She does this by using poisonous mushrooms to make him ill, helpless, and then helplessly devoted to the person who nurses him through his illness. He declares his love for her and they marry. But within a few months her irritating habits and very existence are making his flesh crawl again, and we see him imploring his sister — who seems even less likeable and more damaged than he is — to help him undo the mistake he’s made.
To her, Woodcock complains about the smell of death around him, and we wonder what he means by this. The death of his talent? His business? His marriage?
The remarkable final scene of Phantom Thread transforms our understanding of this question. Alma is in the kitchen cooking mushrooms again. Her husband is immersed in a new design he is sketching while keeping a watchful eye on her. Surely he must suspect something? As the camera lingers sensuously over the food being prepared, the film seems to veer between Babette’s Feast and Fatal Attraction.
The meal is now ready. Woodcock takes a mouthful of it and then spends ages deciding whether or not to swallow. Eventually he does and we realise from his reaction not just that he knows he is being poisoned and will be ill again but that this is what he wants. It’s the only means by which he can allow himself to become dependent on Alma. Paradoxically the poison he consumes gives him a genuine appetite for her by killing off the poison inside him. It is his narcissism that is dying and in the film’s fairy-tale ending we are given a glimpse of the couple in a few years time in the park with their baby.
So what sort of shared fantasy do these two have? Of course there are perverse elements to it with Woodcock treating Alma sadistically before being given a taste of his own medicine by her. But though she refuses to be a masochist, I’m not sure this turns Alma into a sadist. She understands what he needs as no one apart from his mother has done, and through this act of empathic identification succeeds in threading herself into his life in way that no other woman has been able to. For his part Woodcock is able to surrender his omnipotence for an experiment with vulnerability that — much like the sewing-needles that are his stock-in-trade — might either prove dangerous or creative. Or both.