This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
“I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open with only me to help. And then I want you strong again. You're not going to die. You might wish you're going to die, but you're not going to. You need to settle down a little.”
- “Phantom Thread”
“On this arm, I have neither hand nor nails,” he said, drawing the mutilated limb from his breast, and showing it to me. “It is a mere stump—a ghastly sight! Don’t you think so, Jane?”
“It is a pity to see it; and a pity to see your eyes—and the scar of fire on your forehead: and the worst of it is, one is in danger of loving you too well for all this; and making too much of you.”
- Jane Eyre
A friend and I had a running joke about the “Phantom Thread” trailer. While we salivated in anticipation, we also prepared for a gilded variation on the towering, monomaniacal men of Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous films like “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master.” We expected a story of destructive male genius that would be slightly out of step right now, as real-life destructive male geniuses come tumbling from the pedestals that held them above the behavior expectations to which the rest of us conform. My friend summed it up best in a running joke, in which he mimed Daniel Day-Lewis furiously ripping a sleeve from a dress.
Needless to say, the actual film came as a shock. Expecting a beautifully-constructed, but slightly retrograde portrait of difficult men, I was surprised—what’s more, thrilled—to find an off-kilter comedy-cum-psychosexual drama meticulously deconstructing the male genius myth and the toxic, maddening power imbalances between men and women that keep them in power.
“Phantom Thread” concerns English couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis)—a delicious name, reportedly invented by Day-Lewis, which immediately establishes the films’ comedy-of-gender cheekiness. Flanked by an army of identically-dressed female assistants, with his restrained but deadly sister forever at his side, the films begins with the unceremonious dismissal of a weepy lover who has run her course, seemingly one in a line of many. Soon, a meeting with a charming, quietly headstrong waitress of indeterminate foreign extraction, Alma (Vicky Krieps), turns into a romance; she is added to the coterie of women in his home, assisting with dressmaking, modeling his creations, and serving as Reynolds’ lover-muse. Much like Guido in Fellini’s “8 1/2,” Reynolds is a man who dominates and directs the lives of the women around him, while in turn being psychically dominated by their presence and utterly dependent on them emotionally, materially, domestically. After all, the army of seamstresses bring to life the designs he sets on paper, Cyril handles his affairs, Alma inspires his designs and fulfills his sexual needs. There’s even a ghost mother!
But Anderson’s coup comes in the second half of the film. Aware that she is about to be consigned to the dustbin of lovers-past, Alma performs a calculated act of romantic desperation: she poisons Reynolds. The intention isn’t to kill him, but to make him ill enough to render him dependent on her for a time. After an episode of illness in which she assumes the role of caretaker, the relationship is set right again. When they once again fall out of balance, she does it again—this time, with Reynolds’ explicit consent and participation and even enthusiasm. After the tsuris of their ongoing tussle for power and individual agency, the couple finds that this is the secret to achieving equilibrium, and a kinky path to domestic bliss.
While this resolution has the thrill of the unexpected within the context of the film’s narrative, it also had a ring of familiarity, recalling another great story of a man’s domestication: Jane Eyre. Jane is a small, poor young woman who works for the rich, overpowering Mr. Rochester. They fall in love, though their relationship is an ongoing battle of wills, as strong-willed Jane attempts to remain her own master while Rochester both loves her strength and treats her as something of a possession, expecting the ease and subservience his maleness and wealth and power have always afforded him. Jane leaves Rochester (mad wife in the attic—you know how it is), grows, turns down a proposal from a man who doesn’t love her, and conveniently inherits her own wealth. When she returns to Rochester, she finds him scarred, blind, and short a hand (that mad wife, again!). Rather than harming their relationship, this development—which has calmed him, made him meeker, less certain, more dependent—is the linchpin that finally makes their relationship tenable. Like Alma and Reynolds, it allows them to settle into an ideal and idealized marriage, complete with baby.
As a bisexual woman, I have spent years observing heterosexuality as both insider and outsider, and I find this narrative arc both unnerving and alluring in much the same ways I do the central romance in “Phantom Thread.” Based on women’s ongoing fascination with Jane Eyre (see: endless adaptations, online fandom), it seems I’m not alone. Why do these stories continue to hold such power? Why do I and other women continue to relish the Jane-Rochester dynamic? Why are we attracted to the Reynolds-Alma relationship?
One can’t dismiss the erotic power of the fantasy of being needed. But in a certain light, redistributing the balance of power within the relationship by centering power in the domestic realm is somewhat retrograde. Yes, rendering these men dependent by imbuing more power in the women’s roles of caretaker does lend these women power, but it pushes them more firmly into the domestic, maternal role they have already been assigned by society at large.
Jane Eyre was published in 1847. “Phantom Thread” is set in 1954. For both Jane and Alma, opportunities for power and parity outside of the home are limited by their gender, as well as their class. For poor women with no family connections, yoking their fates to those of wealthy men is the most viable means of obtaining power, or at the very least security. Within that context, an insistence on and expectation of parity within a romantic relationship is not only not retrograde, it’s positively revolutionary.
But while there is a sort of historical catharsis in seeing visions of romantic equality in the lives of women of yesteryear, why do these stories continue to resonate today?
In narratives like Jane Eyre and “Phantom Thread,” men are tamed and softened, and the ability to provide care, which is so often women’s unasked-for burden (even today), becomes a lever of power that creates a new equilibrium in the relationship, both emotional and sexual. Bronte treats Rochester’s physical changes as a turn of fate, with the suggestion that fate itself did the necessary work that would allow them to finally settle into comfortable, peaceful heterosexual domesticity. In “Phantom Thread,” however, Anderson queers the happy ending by imbuing the couple’s dynamic with an edge of psycho-sexual violence, engaged in willingly by both participants. But, whether fated or consciously pursued, the rejiggering of the power imbalances in both relationships presents a vision of egalitarian romance that even now remains elusive to many women in heterosexual couples.
Now, not to get all, “But what about men?!” But … what about men? These stories can’t simply be women’s wish fulfillment—after all, “Phantom Thread” was written by a man and is clear in its intention to be a love story, not a horror film. What could a brooding loner so incapable of communicating honestly with his lover that he keeps a woman locked in an attic a secret from her and an overworked perfectionist so trapped in his hermetically sealed notion of order that he short circuits at the smallest hint of change have to gain in these sorts of stories?
Women move through the world with the constant, heavy knowledge of our own vulnerability. We’re taught to see the possibility of violence (often at the hands of men) around every corner. We’re taught that we exist as secondary to the men in our lives, that our livelihood and happiness is predicated on the men to whom we attach ourselves. We’re perpetually situated within family and partnership, for better or worse. Meanwhile, the prevailing cultural narrative about men is their singularity, their ability to exist as lone strivers, with no need for community, much less one specific woman.
The pleasure of these narratives doesn’t rest in seeing the male form and ego brutalized. After all, neither man is left perpetually dependent: Reynolds gets better, Rochester is mobile, and his sight is partially restored. Rather, the pleasure and the hope lies in the way a male existence ruled by self-centeredness and ego can be knocked askance, forcing these men to recognize his own vulnerability, their own need for community and partnership, while making visible the often-invisible female labor that supports their well-being.
These narratives culminate in the creation of new men, who aren’t shackled by the noxious demands of patriarchy and machismo, men who can be strong and helpless, powerful and weak. These aren’t stories of female revenge or dominance. These are stories of the ways a man’s soul can expand, of the ways women can find their own agency, and how men and women can create egalitarian love.
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