In 2017’s Movies, Poisonous Mushrooms Were an Unlikely Symbol of Female Liberation

Nicole Kidman in The Beguiled. Photo: Focus Features

When Fanny Fern said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, she probably didn’t have poisonous mushrooms in mind. But in 2017, women in film have found fungi an effective way of ridding themselves of, defending themselves from, and enfeebling men — be they troublesome, barbaric, or simply insolent. The subtext is thus: “Boys are stupid; feed them toxins.”

First came Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, adapted from Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name (first adapted for the screen in 1971 by Don Siegel). Then, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, based on Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov. Now, we’re treated to Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, an original picture that nonetheless bears an unintended family resemblance to its precursors via fatal culinary instinct. Each of these films ducks obvious femme-fatale tropes and gives women agency through this most unexpected plot device. Two is a coincidence. Three is an inexplicable micro-trend in the year’s movies, though perhaps not totally inexplicable after all: If you need to bump a dude off in a hurry — or just make him sick to his stomach — there’s no better way to accomplish your goals than mushroom poisoning. Call it cruel or cunning; either way, it’s a shrewd enterprise.

In 2017’s movies, mushrooms are more than a rich source of venom: They’re a means of winning freedom from regressive male rule. The message resonates even if the means themselves happen to be somewhat surprising — this year began with the Women’s March on Washington and ended with the #MeToo movement; in between, women’s voices have sounded throughout popular culture, in projects like Big Little Lies, Wonder Woman, Girls Trip, The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, Lady Bird, Raw, and The Girlfriend Experience. Relatively, mushrooms play only a small role in women’s emancipation from patriarchy, but that they should play a role at all feels like more than serendipity. Sylvia Plath would be proud.

But Plath’s poem is a rare instance where mushrooms symbolize women’s adversity in a world curated by men. More often in popular culture, they warn of danger or impending damnation in folklore. Over in Holland, the sight of mushrooms sprouting from the ground in a circle is a sign of the Devil, while in Great Britain, they’re proof of fairy activity. Wander into their radius and you might end up napping for a few hundred years. In Lithuania, mushrooms are thought to be the fingers of the god of the dead. In Chinese and Japanese culture, at least, mushrooms are associated with longevity, due in no small part to their medicinal applications, but generally, if you stumble upon mushrooms in the wild, you’re told to beware.

Unless you have use for their poison. In Lady Macbeth, for example, young Katherine (Florence Pugh) picks poisonous mushrooms to murder her authoritarian father-in-law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), over breakfast. Another film might color Katherine as a femme fatale, but Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch sidestep the cliché by changing Leskov’s text, which features rat poison instead of mushrooms, and also by keeping mum: “We resisted the temptation to over-explain the nature of poisonous mushrooms, decided not to show reference books or mushrooms sizzling in a pan or hovering on a fork about to be eaten,” Oldroyd tells Vulture.

That change also gives Katherine an easy way to cover her tracks. “First, if anyone bothered to investigate, it could be more easily considered an accident,” Oldroyd explains, “and secondly, if anyone did ever suspect foul play, the blame would always be placed on Anna (Naomi Ackie), as it was her job to forage for mushrooms and ensure they were edible.” (Spoiler alert: This is precisely what happens in the film’s climax.) Conveniently, we can read these motivations into Phantom Thread, though to a lesser extent: When Alma (Vicky Krieps) first brews tea using bits of poisonous shrooms for her lover and employer, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), he’s none the wiser when he falls suddenly, violently ill. The next time, she folds them into his eggs. He picks up her cues, and rather than react in horror, he requests a kiss before his stomach turns on him. Reynolds knows. He doesn’t care. She’s beaten him at his own game, joined him in an endless power struggle in a way that he finds irresistible. He’s in love. (Irrevocably tainted love, perhaps, but love nonetheless.)

The women of The Beguiled hew closer to Katherine: They need to dispose of an abusive man, and mushrooms present the best opportunity to do so. Feeding the unhinged Union deserter John McBurney (Colin Farrell) a side of mushrooms, one of his favorite foods, relieves them of his presence while putting them above suspicion. Not that anyone’s around to accuse them of murder most foul: In the film, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and the students at her Virginia-based girls’ school are alone, disturbed only by McBurney’s emergence from the neighboring woods. If anyone bothered to ask how he died, they could simply chalk up his passing to wounds sustained in battle. Likewise, Katherine can place culpability on her maid.

The mushroom’s utility in these films extends to building tension, as well. In Lady Macbeth, we’ve no idea at first what Katherine has served Boris; we only hear him dying in another room. Oldroyd uses the element sparingly and to cutting effect. Coppola and Anderson, on the other hand, highlight the mushroom’s nature, which has an altogether different effect. “In both Phantom Thread and The Beguiled, the tension that is created when we know what’s on the plate or in the teapot is superb — it’s thrilling,” Oldroyd points out. “I love the way that [Anderson] in particular is so inventive with his shots as Alma prepares her remedy — at one moment, we’re even inside the teapot looking out — it’s totally bold and wonderful.”

Turns out folklore has the mushroom pegged all wrong. They’re hazardous, no doubt, but they’re redeeming, too, and a subtle apparatus for suspense to boot. Blend these qualities together and drop them into movies about women under the thumb of male oppression, and you wind up with 2017’s most surprising metaphor for women’s liberation. Femmes fatales these characters are not. Regardless, think twice about accepting their invitations to supper.

Poison Mushrooms, 2017’s Unlikely Symbol of Female Freedom