In the post-Weinstein era, we look around at the carnage of shattered lives and wonder how we got here. What a poor time for the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which pushes the narrative that geniuses are on some level allowed to be abusive. If your work is beautiful enough, your soul can be made of scabs and darkness. The world excuses so much if you’re talented and male.
As we regard the allegations coming out of Hollywood, old school anecdotes of bullying creators feel less charming and more ominous. To Anderson’s credit, his tale of a tyrannical fashion designer does have a thread of criticism, as its female lead pushes back and declares Reynolds Woodcock (60-year-old Daniel Day-Lewis) is “a spoiled baby.” Still, there is a stark power imbalance between the two, both within the plot and the structuring, that cannot be ignored or overcome. Phantom Thread will try to convince you that in the amusing muse Alma (34-year-old Vicky Krieps), Reynolds’ has at long last met his match. Anderson’s script, however, only ever considers her in the context of him.
The story begins at the end of a cycle. Over breakfast in 1950s London, a sullen woman sniffs over Reynolds’ lack of attention. His stern sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) suggests this dour girlfriend be cut from his life. He swiftly agrees, leaving Cyril to do the dirty work, while Reynolds is free to look elsewhere for love and inspiration. Almost immediately, he finds the clumsy, blushing waitress with a charming smile, and decides she shall be his new project/paramour. Before the end of their first date, Alma is already in Reynolds’ studio, stripped to her underthings, awed by his attention, and being unapologetically criticized over her small breasts and bit of belly by an intrusive Cyril.
In voiceover, Alma admits she’d never thought herself beautiful, and catalogues her physical flaws (broad shoulders, athletic arms, too thin neck), before declaring Reynolds would fix her with his beautiful dresses. She becomes his live-in model, assistant, and occasional lover. She gives over whatever life she had to him without a second thought. Anderson doesn’t give it thought either, offering only the slightest insight into her life before Reynolds. If there are cameras present, the admired designer of the House of Woodcock fawns over his newest It Girl. If he is ill, Reynolds is tender in Alma’s caring arms. But when it comes to his work, Alma becomes his enemy, a distraction, even when she’s diligently stitching alongside his army of seamstresses.
We’re meant to chuckle over Reynolds’ outlandish outbursts. In his supposedly final film role, Day-Lewis spikes his dashing demeanor with theatrical pouting, and hard-turned sneers as he explodes with sour invectives and recriminations, declaring Alma must be a secret agent assigned to destroy his life and legacy. At the screening I attended, plenty of people chortled throughout as Reynolds and Alma spiral into more furious fights. Anderson aims to make this familiar story of May-December romance, of abusive artist and doting/tortured wife, into something satirical. But by so much fawning over Reynolds, it feels hollow in its criticism.
Perhaps because the real world is inundated with headlines about talented men in power using their influence to intimidate younger women into all kinds of awful scenarios, I couldn’t relax into this film and revel in its smirking humor. I couldn’t ignore that Reynolds has all the power, able to make Alma homeless, jobless, and loveless without a moment’s hesitation. He risks nothing, and has a whole system ready to assist her dismissal and welcome his next lover or victim, depending on how you look at it. So, Phantom Thread‘s bemused humor feels at best outdated and at worst callous. Even as a second-act twist redirects the narrative, giving Reynolds some savory comeuppance and Alma more power, I was unsettled, because Alma does not exist outside of Reynolds.
Phantom Thread focuses on their rollercoaster romance, so I can excuse that Alma doesn’t exist until Reynolds lays eyes on her. But after this, we never see who she is beyond his lover/tormenter. Does she have friends? He does, we meet them. He has a sister who is a major facet of their life, but does Alma have family? Does she have interests outside of Reynolds? Does she have any importance beyond how she relates to the male lead? It seems not. She is his inspiration and/or obstacle more than a character in her own right. She is an abstraction, kept vague so we might be able to laugh at the abuse put upon her. She is the structure on which Reynolds’ works must hang. And yet, for all this, Anderson doesn’t seem all that interested in the film’s fashion. Make no mistake: the costumes by Phantom Thread’s designer Mark Bridges are elegant and lovely. Yet after much hullabaloo over a royal’s wedding dress, we never even get to see the final product on the regal bride. Again, it’s suggested that it’s the art that matters, not the women who had a hand in its creation.
Within Phantom Thread, there is an undercurrent of misogyny that is treated with mirth. Despite dedicating his life to women’s fashion, Reynolds considers make-up a lie, which would make him a prophet to modern MRAs. He wipes lipstick off Alma, suggesting she strive to look as he likes. He openly mocks female superstitions over wedding dresses. Notably, the film is set in an era where a woman’s future and financial security were still very tied to who she married. But oh those silly female fears! Reynolds takes for granted that his sister will always be his caretaker, and that there will always be pretty young things eager to be his playthings. And sure, some of his more outrageous remarks earn chuckles from the audience, but what about scorn? Don’t the charms and general affection for Day-Lewis inherently smooth over the bumps of this sexism, suggesting Reynolds is not bad, but old-fashioned? And isn’t that an excuse all too common right now?
Phantom Thread is stuffed with women, women who gawp at Reynolds’ dresses, women who disappoint him, women who silently sew his designs, women who learn to quietly butter toast lest they disturb his morning routine, women who play the heavy so he can avoid the consequences of his carelessness. Yet, I don’t believe it passes the Bechdel Test, because every conversation between the women in this film is either about Reynolds’ or about his work. Now, the Bechdel Test does not determine quality. But in a film that’s meant to be about two people, it’s a helpful tool in realizing Phantom Thread only truly cares about its difficult male hero. Meanwhile, its female lead is more plot device than person.
I struggle to think of a female equivalent of such a film, because women who are abusive in their power are most often movie villains (Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada), where men get to be complicated anti-heroes (There Will Be Blood, Jobs, The Social Network). No matter how elegantly shot, charismatically performed, or jauntily scored, I am absolutely exhausted by this tired narrative. I find nothing funny about a power imbalance that pits a young woman without wealth or position against a famous, affluent older man who has the ability to make her a star, and just as easily cast her aside to the gutters. Even with Anderson’s brisk whimsy, it feels too real and ugly to be amusing.
Phantom Thread opens on December 25th.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko a co-host for the Sirius XM show It’s Erik Nagel, and has taught a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com