Phantom Thread, the lush gothic romance from auteur Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood, The Master) is the art-house film of the moment. With six Oscar nominations and a 91 per cent ‘fresh’ critics rating on movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the ravishingly beautiful and subversively funny film will appear on many ‘Best Of the Year’ lists. But these are dangerous times for a work of art to depict a rich and powerful older man mistreating a young and vulnerable woman.
As Hollywood flounders in the mess of widespread revelations of sexual harassment and systematic abuse of power (and the ensuing viral #MeToo social media campaign) it’s no wonder that certain commentators have attempted to tie Phantom Thread into this impassioned discourse. But it’s an awkward fit and even laughable to observe how much contorting is required to squeeze this subtle film into the confines of a current-affairs-driven debate about bad male behaviour.
"It's laughable to observe how much contorting is required to squeeze this subtle film into the confines of a current-affairs-driven debate about bad male behaviour"
Phantom Thread stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a controlling and fanatical fashion designer working in 1950s London. He meets his match in his latest muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young immigrant waitress with a stubborn streak. Clearly influenced and in conversation with Hitchcockian marriage thrillers like Rebecca and Suspicion, Phantom Thread is a story about love and obsession, a push-pull for power in intimate relationships. In the course of the film we do see the older man behaving like a spoilt brat, a petty tyrant and an intolerant monster.
But it seems that now more than ever, we must be reminded that representation does not mean endorsement.
Bad Take #1: Phantom Thread is tone deaf in the age of #MeToo
If this isn’t Toxic Masculinity, what is? asks Variety’s Owen Glieberman in an article defending his previous review of Phantom Thread. Glieberman is right to describe Reynolds when we first meet him as “a courtly alpha artist-brute who wants things his way or no way at all.” But this is only half the story. As anyone who’s seen the film knows (spoiler alert), the film charts not only the complex take-down of Reynolds, his humbling and punishment by the woman he’s mistreated, but his eventual wholehearted consent in this process as he acknowledges his need to be made helpless and vulnerable by love.
Glieberman concedes this plot point but finds it a “glib” solution, objecting to the fact that Reynolds is played with “sexy light charm”. Apparently it’s unfortunate, even offensive, that Anderson and Day-Lewis have chosen to present a “toxic” fictional male character such as this in the age of Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and John Lasseter.
In a slightly more convincing version of this argument, Playboy’s Noah Berlatsky talks about why Phantom Thread feels out of touch amid #MeToo. He argues that “while Reynolds is not Harvey Weinstein, or Louis C.K., or Kevin Spacey, the film still reproduces the logic which has made it so difficult to hold [them] to account… men have genius, and women are valuable, admirable and worthy of attention to the extent that they support that genius.”
It’s true that Phantom Thread presents a tortured male artist who is supported by women. These include not only Alma, but also his tart businesslike sister Cyril, (a crisp and crunchy performance by Leslie Manville), and a coterie of longsuffering seamstresses who do the actual painstaking sewing. But in this film, the ‘genius’ of Reynolds Woodcock is always up for satire (the dresses themselves are never quite as beautiful as we expect them to be) and Reynolds must learn to tolerate the sound of toast being scraped at breakfast, and the rejection of customers who move on to other designers, not to mention the torture of having a wife who cuts him down to size when his head gets too big.
Perhaps Phantom Thread feels out of touch with #MeToo because as a piece of idiosyncratic cinematic art it’s not at all interested in gender politics or the current sexual harassment crisis. Phantom Thread is a highly particular psychodrama riddled with Freudian shadows and darkly playful games, and if you’re looking for a woman who’s ultimately downtrodden, beaten or subjugated, then you just won’t find it in this film. Interestingly, the director himself has said he’s surprised to find a disproportionate number of female viewers report being more like Reynolds than Alma in their intimate relationships, a sentiment echoed in this tweet:
Bad Take #2: Phantom Thread is an inadequate apology to women
In a different slant on the #MeToo theme, Slate’s Inkoo Kang argued that 2017 was the year of the male apology in film, because of films like Aronofsky’s Mother!, Ruben Ostlund’s The Square and Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which each brought low their egotistical male protagonists. But, according to Kang, these apologies were inadequate and incomplete, because the films failed to sufficiently humanise their female characters. That criticism is probably fair for Mother! and even The Square, but it seems like a stretch to apply it to Phantom Thread.
While it’s true that Alma is given only the briefest sketch of a backstory (Germanic accent, a dead mother and a flicker of discomfort at the mention of Jewish passports), it’s impossible to deny she’s a fully fleshed character, given just as much time, weight and complexity as Day-Lewis’s Reynolds. In the end, it could be argued, she’s the stronger and more compelling force, and it’s an unforgettable career-making performance by Krieps.
Bad Take #3: Phantom Thread is a bad boring film about a bad boring man. With bad fashion.
Not all detractors of Phantom Thread have directly cited its gender politics, though many have stated an extreme dislike for the Day-Lewis character. In a Tweet he possibly later regretted, director and critic Mark Cousins wrote:
After a barrage of replies that defended the film, Cousins retorted sarcastically:
Time magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek also disliked Phantom Thread immensely, taking issue with Day-Lewis’s Oscar-nominated performance and calling it “mannered to the point of seeming embalmed.” (She wished Day-Lewis would just retire already if he finds acting as difficult and painful as has been reported.)
Zacharek also called Phantom Thread “a belaboured corset of a movie,” and criticised the fashion as “fussy”, “stiff” and lacking the elegance of a Balenciaga gown. But surely this was the whole point of the clothes we see created by Reynolds Woodcock, who is after all only a second-tier designer, and one rapidly losing ground to the ‘chic’ Europeans.
Ultimately, the enjoyment of art is a subjective experience, and any piece of cinema is open to multiple readings, including those coloured by the politics and scandals of the day. But some takes are just plain wrong.
And some are frankly hilarious:
Phantom Thread is now showing.