Love, Power, Fashion, Butter: ‘Phantom Thread’ and The Façade of Male Genius
As this year’s Oscar nominations were announced, most of us awards prognosticators predicted that Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest drama, Phantom Thread, would be lucky to pick up more than one nomination. Sure, Daniel Day-Lewis was a dead cert, but the film itself just didn’t seem to be on their radar, if the lack of preceding awards was anything to go by. Much to the shock and delight of critics and the industry, the film received greater representation across various categories than anyone could have hoped for in their wildest dreams. Anderson found a way into Best Director in an especially competitive year, and the film stands alongside lofty competition in Best Picture. Having now seen the film myself, I’m more stunned than ever that they pulled it off.
Phantom Thread is a deceptive tale of power, one whose force sneaks up on you through micro-aggressions and extended foreplay. Easily one of the best movies of the year, it’s not hard to see why so many would find the film baffling, off-putting, or even worse. This is no ordinary costume drama (although every dress is a feast for the eyes), nor is it a mere battle of the sexes. Some may see it as yet another tortured male genius story, which is understandable, but this is a story far more concerned with pitying such creatures than inflating their egos. Without the emotional, sexual and economic sacrifices of those women, said men simply cannot cope, and Phantom Thread knows that so very well.
Centred on the groan-inducingly named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, controlled and childish and seldom better), a celebrated fashion designer whose work has made him a star in post-war Britain. His stern sister Cyril (the criminally underrated Lesley Manville) keeps the home running and sees to his private affairs when he grows bored of them. During a quick country break, he meets the eager young Alma (Vicky Krieps, the true star of the film) and immediately finds his latest muse in her. Yet muses are fleeting, and Alma is painfully aware of her short shelf life.
It’s easy to get caught up in the admittedly enthralling aesthetics of the film: The clothes are sumptuous, the breakfasts indulgent, Day-Lewis has never looked hotter, and the House of Woodcock will inspire many a case of property envy. Alma, a young European immigrant who we first see working as a somewhat clumsy waitress, is both dazzled and overwhelmed by the opulence of her new surroundings. Dressed in only the finest, she is paraded around more as an accessory than Reynolds’s lover, and everyone around her seems to be waiting for the inevitable moment when Cyril asks her to leave. It weighs heavily on her mind and emphasizes how disposable women seem to be to this genius, especially if they’re outside of his class. Much of the film’s most striking moments come when Alma challenges Reynolds over his set routine, that reeks of childishness to her. The mere awareness of her presence, be it from the buttering of her toast to her dismissed kindness in bringing some tea to the studio, seems to prickle him. Alma’s frustration is further exacerbated by how quickly his dictatorial tendencies are accepted by others. She seems to be the only person willing to call a spade a spade, which only disturbs him more.
Reading this review so far, I’m sure many will be dismissing the film as another peacock-strutting festival of adored male egos. We’ve spent the past few months furiously digging ourselves out of the hole created by bowing down unreservedly to men who are deemed to be geniuses, and it will take much longer for us to reach the surface. Phantom Thread is about a male genius, but it is no love letter to Reynolds or his archetype. Anderson, who wrote the film as well, has much more interest in dissecting the power structure that surrounds such figures, and how easily something so fragile can be disrupted.
To understand this dynamic further, I’m going to have to go into spoiler territory. So, if you don’t want to be spoiled - and believe me, you don’t - then just skip past all this, and go straight to the cinema to see Phantom Tread.
Reynolds Woodcock is a genius - although I believe that sentiment to be debatable - but he is also an emotionally stunted man-child with severe mother issues who relies on the selflessness of women to keep him afloat. Without Alma, without Cyril, without his customers, and without the many seamstresses who make his ideas reality, Reynolds would be nothing. His genius is limited, and often only justified by the women around him doing the real labour. He cloaks himself in luxurious confidence to get through the day and prays that nobody reveals the emperor is wearing no clothes. Every woman around him sees his reality, but it is Alma who cements the dynamic in her favour.
Being a muse is fun for a while, but it demands nothing of Alma beyond her ability to stand still for many hours. To talk back, talk to Reynolds or even prepare her breakfast is too unruly. Eventually, she wants power back.
She wants to be his one and only for just a little while longer, so she poisons him with mushrooms.
With the focus Reynolds reserves for sewing gowns, she chops and crushes them into his tea, and quickly becomes his adoring nurse once he becomes too ill to even move. As a patient, Reynolds’s infantile tendencies become more potent. You can imagine him calling Alma ‘mother’ in a moment of delirium. He is helpless when he is sick, immediately reverting to the childlike state he pretends isn’t his default mode. Alma, of course, loves it.
Eventually they marry, and he expectedly reverts to his old ways. He wants rid of the woman who won’t shut up, even as his sister, for once, sides with her. Reynolds lacks the emotional maturity to talk to his wife like a human being, and he can’t bring himself to admit how pathetically he needs her. Alma returns to her mushroom game, but this time he is savvy to her plans. Still, he goes along with it, because he needs it. When Alma tells him that she wants him to be utterly helpless and in his care, on his back and waiting for her aid, it is like a light has turned on in his mind. Sickness returns but he is ready for the fallout and prepared to give everything over to her. It is accepted that this will be a new addition to the routine, his new method of catharsis and his admittance that Alma is his world.
Twisted? Sure. Adoring of male genius? Ha.
Without the women in his life, Reynolds will crumble. As stubborn as he is, and as beloved as his work is now, even he seems to understand that his future in uncertain. The 1960s are around the corner, and his seemingly timeless designs will hold no sway for the women who want to look cool or chic or swinging. Cyril may remain by his side, and she will salve his ego when need be, but she’s not above telling him to shut up. Both know that she will win in any fight, because she is the only one willing to be mother in those situations. Without the skilled hands of the seamstresses who work overtime to fix his mistakes, his reputation would be meaningless. Without the customers he quietly scorns, often to their faces, there would be no House of Woodcock.
And without Alma, he is more pathetic a creature than he already is. She tells him, so sweetly but with that icy edge, that their future will be a good one together. She will bear his children, join him as head of the company - keeping it young where he refuses to - and wiping his brow when the mushrooms set in. This is a classic story of an artist and his muse, but with an acidic bite that reminds us of how pitiable that stereotype really. Alma is what Billy Wilder would have referred to as the vinegar in the cocktail - the necessary sharpness to a traditional tale that keeps the dream alive.
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