A litany of women enter a house of their daily shift: they sew, they tailor, they do all the work of making immaculate, impossible dresses. They do this as man sits at a breakfast table above, conducting via sketch, demanding utter silence around him. The man, Reynolds Woodcock (clearly named for the intentional snicker), cannot even suffer a single word from his live-in girlfriend, let alone a confrontational one. But luckily, his sister will promptly dump her for him. And with this opening scene, we get the peek of a whole system that props up this “man of genius.”
It’s 1950’s London fashion industry, but is might as well be Hollywood 2018.
For as we uproot the tree of sexual assault in this industry, there’s been much discussion of how much we advocate systems of silence, but it all goes to the deeper DNA is how much we advocate arbitrary and toxic systems of genius, stardom, and influence. For it is in the creative worlds where genius is directly equated with power. So it’s no wonder Reynolds keeps pushing himself into the work itself. Does he have a love of his art? Sure. But the obsession with work is really about the power and control that comes with it. It is the emotional reinforcement that comes adoration, part of the desire to be coddled by society itself. And all the external things that can make us feel valued, if only for a moment. But when the entire world bends to your genius? There is nothing more insufferable then a moment where you are actually confronted with non-adoration. And there’s no doubt that this ideas are very much on the mind of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, a transfixing, darkly comic, and often agonizing film about what happens when we all buy into that system.
The central “buy in” of this story comes from Alma Elso (Victoria Krieps), who enters his life as a klutzy waitress, and gets charmed by the laser-eyed attention of this opulent “hungry boy.” Her yearning is simple: he’s new, exciting, and can whisk her away into a larger world. But we watch with worried nerves as her face begins to sour as she immediately gets contorted, fussed about, assessed. Please understand, there is nothing about Alma that is inherently prone to this. She’s practically a goofball at the start and has that quality masculine men seem to adore where she can “give as good as she takes.” And even as Reynolds system of control closes in on her, she tries fights for herself, trying to make personal space within the suffocating house. But that’s the thing about suffocating systems: they’re a rigged game that will make you fight for the most meager of victories, the tiniest slivers of personhood and intimacy. And when raising yourself up to someone’s level is impossible, the only way to upend the toxicity of power-imbalance is to tear down the other person to be lower than you. In the case of Phantom Thread, that tearing down comes in the form of literal poisoning, putting this patriarch on his back, weak and in need of her care and her care alone.
Make no mistake, this is a horror film.
Not in the sense that it will make you jump or subject you to grueling of physical abuses. No, this is the horror of daily emotional abuse, some of which are so mundane as to be instantly recognizable. And we can only watch in horror as Alma, who is given every excuse to run, to escape from this rigged game, chooses to fight for her space and opt back in. Not realizing that in the end, this game can can only whittle you down. Because even as you fight more and more, you don’t realize that what you’re really giving into is self-erasure. In trying to fill the hole inside, the hole becomes bigger and bigger until there is only the hole. Your own invisibility. Your own agency. There is only element of you that belongs to the other person and what you can do for them. Even as Alma regales us with her tale of love, she lays it all out to us, smiling as she brags that she has given Reynolds “every piece” of her.
But as much as this plight can go down, down, and down, the film’s piece de resistance comes in the form of a damn omelet, where the two finally buy into their “game” of their mutual abuse. I’ve seen hot takes that interpret this as the language of dom and sub sexuality, but this readily goes beyond bedroom play and into a much darker agreement of life itself. For it is the acceptance of outright dysfunction, the love language of abuse and keeping ourselves in systems of abuse. As Reynold’s exclaims “kiss me woman, before I’m sick!” we audibly guffaw at the incredulity of their damn happiness within it. But their loving embrace is what makes it all the more horrifying. They’re choosing the abuse that people choose every day. And thus, it is one of the most acute and terrifying portraits of co-dependent toxicity that I’ve ever seen.
One that I hope masculinity has an ability to recognize in ourselves.
For there is no grand secret behind Reynold’s ire. No dark abuse or lingering secret. Just the aching reality of a man plainly in grief of his mother, and with no real way to process it. Even as her haunting, ethereal form visits, there is no fear, no malice. Just the quiet and humble words of a man sweetly declaring “I just miss you” to her ghostly visage. And while it’s clearly grief, it may as well be the way any older man misses the mothering of youth. And for a man of genius, who gets to abuse every measure of power and control in their possess, the mothered boy under their fragile exterior will impatiently demand the world mothers them in turn.
But he, like Alma, is just trying to fill a hole. A hole of longing. A hole of absence. A hole of powerlessness. But that brings us to the lesson Reynolds and Alma never learn: that the deeper we go into broken systems, trying to fill the holes inside of us, the more we just fill ourselves with dysfunctional answers. And we tell ourselves “this is the only way” to feel weak and strong in equal measure. But this notion is the biggest toxic buy-in of all.
Because they’re not holes. They’re wounds. The gushing, bloody marks of the loss, and yearning, and happiness itself. And in trying to fill them up with things, we only poke and prod these festering gaps and get them infected. Then we learn to live with a disease and even take pride in the way we further mangle these wounds and call it helping. For the horror of Reynolds and Alma is they believe they’re cured. But the truth, whether literal, emotional, or societal, is that wounds do not need to be filled…
They need to be healed.