*Note: This is an analysis, not a review. There are spoilers for both Psycho and Phantom Thread. As I’ve only seen Phantom Thread once, this analysis may change over time.
In a pivotal scene in Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson utilizes a visual reference to Hitchcock’s Psycho, drawing out the film’s Hitchcockian aspirations and establishing a parallel relationship between Alma/Woodcock and Marion/Norman. Alma has gone out to demonstrate her dress before Woodcock’s patrons, and Woodcock rushes to a peephole in one of the doors to watch her perform. The image of Woodcock’s eye lit by the peephole references a shot in Psycho, where Norman Bates watches Marion Crane undress through a secret peephole in the Bates Motel office. Woodcock’s visual association with Bates is not just a comment on him as psychopathic lover, but also an attempt to draw parallels between Woodcock’s act of voyeurism and Norman’s.
Norman’s act of voyeurism is presented as pathetic, a moment of perversion for a lonely young man. At the juncture in the narrative, the audience is unaware of Norman’s psychopathy and his behavior, while unnerving, is simply an act of voyeurism. What will happen to Marion is as yet unknown. As the camera takes Norman’s perspective, drawing close to the image of him at the peephole, the audience comes into visual sympathy with him – we see what he sees. The shot cuts to the image of Marion removing her clothes from Norman’s perspective, the frame edged with black as the camera mimics the view through the peephole. The reverse shot cut brings us into close-up with Norman’s eye, and then again cuts back to Marion as she moves toward the bathroom.
The act of voyeurism is not merely an act that Norman performs, but an act that the camera – and, by extension, the audience – performs with him. Pushed into sympathy with Norman whether we want to be or not, the audience is implicated in his act of voyeurism and all that it entails, up to and including the eventual murder. But Norman’s behavior is also tentative; his voyeurism slightly embarrassed, as though the act of looking is compulsive rather than wholly deliberate. What is more, he steps away from the peephole before Marion fully undresses—it is thwarted desire, perverted though it is, that compels him, and he doesn’t want to see it through to conclusion.
To look and be looked at returns again and again in Psycho, especially during the pivotal lead-up to the shower sequence, and the scene itself. When the camera gives us our first real glimpse of Mother, backlit by the sheer white of the bathroom, the shot is from Marion’s perspective. The peephole shot of Norman’s eyes recurs in its mirror image of Marion’s dead eye, the camera spiralling from it following her murder. Just as the audience has looked at Marion from Norman’s perspective, so do we see Mother from Marion’s, and finally ourselves, her eye looking back at us. The dynamic of looking and being looked at, and the violence and violation that is a part of the look, returns throughout the film, implicating the audience as well as the characters in its varieties of voyeurism and violation. (This scene, by the way, becomes even more complicated once we understand that Norman is Mother and that is it Norman’s initial act of voyeurism that eventually awakens “Mother’s” homicidal tendencies.)
Phantom Thread utilizes this dynamic as well, but the peephole shot here is one of the more blatant uses of another film’s imagery to draw the act of voyeurism into focus. Where Norman moves tentatively to observe Marion, Woodcock’s observation of Alma is breathless – he practically flings himself at the peephole, even though he’s standing in a room full of other models and seamstresses. Alma, meanwhile, is fully aware that Woodcock is looking at her. Unlike Marion, who is a passive and basically innocent victim (her greatest crime, vis a vis Norman, is trying to be sympathetic to him), Alma is a performer in her own objectification. However, the film does not therefore give her greater autonomy than Marion. She is performing as a model, and is therefore only present to be a passive object of the look. That Woodcock extends this objectification to his own form of rather sexless titillation further complicates the referentiality in using the peephole shot – he is looking, and the object of his gaze knows he is looking, and thus performs for him. But she also has no choice but to perform – she is a victim as well, because her professional role of a model enforces on her a passivity removes any choice that she might have. He will look and she will be looked at, no matter what. The way that Woodcock looks at her is not particularly a mark of his perversion, because that is literally her role.
The other marked difference in the shot as used in Phantom Thread is the lack of audience perspective/sympathy in conjunction with Woodcock’s voyeurism. Where Psycho forces the audience into visual complicity with Norman, including all that comes after, the audience is not forced to be complicit with Woodcock. He flings himself against the door, but the next image we see is not associated with Woodcock’s gaze. We briefly observe Alma returning his look as she glances at the door, knowing he’s watching her, but the camera itself does not take Woodcock’s perspective. The lack of POV distances the audience from the character, but also does not force us to interrogate our place in Woodcock’s voyeurism. His obsession, such as it is, is more an aesthetic one. While Norman’s vision is both intentionally titillating and intentionally disturbing, complicating the audience’s ethical standing in terms of the characters and in terms of the eventual murder and its solution, the scene in Phantom Thread makes no such demand of its viewers. Rather, Woodcock’s obsession forms a sort of aesthetic romance that the camera reinforces by declining to truly represent it as voyeurism. Where Hitchcock attempts to draw his audience into uncomfortable proximity with his obsessive character, Anderson allows the audience to remain distant and thus not particularly culpable. Looking and being looked at is a matter of aesthetic appreciation, not of perversion.
Yet Anderson chooses such a clear and deliberate reference to Psycho, in the midst of a film that is very much about looking and being looked at. This referentiality, while somewhat incoherent, is a mark of Anderson’s attempts to draw the viewer into the film vis a vis Hitchcock, to imply that we are, at least partially, to understand Woodcock’s relationship with Alma as having a corollary in Norman’s voyeurism. This is not particularly carried through to the rest of the narrative, however, and the Psycho reference gets lost in a pattern of referentiality and aesthetic fetishization. Phantom Thread’s treatment of voyeurism in general, and the presentation of the peephole shot specifically, avoids making the audience culpable in the interplay of dominance and submission, violation and control, that makes up so much of Phantom Thread’s narrative. We are asked to understand voyeurism from afar, to appreciate it aesthetically, and, much like Alma, to never really question our participation in it.