Published on February 13th, 2018 | by Craig Silliphant0
A review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant new film, Phantom Thread, turns into a defense against wannabe woke click bait think pieces attacking the film.
I’ve been a huge Paul Thomas Anderson fan since Hard Eight. He made the best movie of the 21st century so far in There Will Be Blood. Even when there’s a film of his that I don’t love as much as the others, which is rare, I still return to it again and again as a master class in filmmaking. It was this love for PT that sent me to the theatre on opening night to see Phantom Thread.
Admittedly, I was a bit hesitant, both before the movie, and even for the first half hour or so. I can’t say that I was relishing the idea of another tale of post-war romance in Britain about a man from high society bringing a woman from a different class into his life. Would they ever truly be able to love each other? Could he teach her to speak proper English? Would it be a movie of passion, taste, and sensitivity that touched my every emotion (okay, I’m paraphrasing Kenneth Turan’s review of Howard’s End. Yes, I’m an idiot). To be clear, I don’t have a problem with post-war romance movies. I just wasn’t sure how much of a mood I was in to see one that night.
Without giving too much away, Phantom Thread is far from the Merchant Ivory romance I’m describing. There’s a lot more going on. Some have even called it a horror movie and chastised it for being an out of touch promotion of toxic male masculinity.
Phantom Thread tells the story of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a well-known dressmaker for the rich and royal in 1950’s London. He lives a life of measure and order, avoiding confrontation because it slows down the work, yet being passive aggressive to those around him. His sister, Cyril (in an extraordinary turn by Lesley Manville), takes care of him, even getting rid of his lovers when they become a drag (or when he tires of the noises they make). Running away from one such confrontation, he meets a young woman named Alma and she becomes his muse. Alma struggles to fit into his life and his ever-shifting moods, while fighting to keep her own personality alive.
Just when I decided to be fine with the idea that I was about to see a grand romance unfurl onscreen, the movie twisted into fascinating shapes. The characters became warped, perverse, and complicated enough that I wasn’t even sure who to root for. Whose side was I on in this so-called romance? Whose side was I on in the anti-romance? Should I even be choosing a side? Should I have been disgusted like the writers of some of the think pieces on toxic masculinity?
As I said, the film has been offending some people, who have called it and PT out of touch. While I can certainly understand being triggered by Woodcock’s behaviour, I’m afraid I have to argue with the idea that we shouldn’t tell a story like this just because it has some difficult characters and situations. This is a very dangerous idea to me, tantamount to censorship. While some art can indeed outlive its era and feel tone deaf (some of the older James Bond films have been coming up in this context recently), this movie clearly isn’t the creation of a monster/character for the sake of tone deaf comedy.
Drama is conflict, and the movie knows that Woodcock is a cad. It solicits some sympathy for him as all stories need to do for their characters — you don’t need to like a character, but if you don’t sympathize with even the villains, your story is dead on arrival. The film clearly communicates that he’s not someone to look up to.
“If you read the film as a romance, it requires you to buy into a series of deeply unhealthy and toxic behaviors,” says one writer. Uh, yes, that’s very true. But I have no idea why one would read it as a straight ahead romance. That may be the set up, working within Jane Austin tropes to catch the audience off guard before surprising them with where the story goes, but that’s it. Wouldn’t this twist also echo real life? Don’t people in abusive relationships also encounter romantic illusions set out by their abusers that pull them in, before they realize they are caught in a cycle of abuse? That’s been my personal experience. At any rate, the movie clearly isn’t meant to be read as a romance. To even suggest that is a silly, straw man argument.
Another writer complains that women subordinate themselves to art and Woodcock in the film. Again, yes, that’s true. But it’s not fetishizing that idea — at the very heart of the story is a cautionary tale about damaged individuals. No one would want to be in this relationship, so how can the movie be glorifying abuse or being subordinate to the art of a male genius? Those threads are more points in a conversation about abusive relationships.
Here’s another angle: Woodcock is a toxic figure, to be sure, but I also read that character as suffering from depression and mental illness. He treats people, especially Alma, horribly, but if we immediately condemn him for being toxic, what compassion do we have for those in the throes of depression? I’m not attempting to justify his behaviour in the least. I just wonder what the think pieces would look like if some of the writers also took stigmatization of mental illness and depression into their quick draw shoot ‘em down of Phantom Thread. They seem to ignore this because it doesn’t suit their argument, but the line between abuser and mentally ill is another fascinating conversation the movie stirs. The wonder of the movie and the complexity of the characters come alive in these very debates. How can art that explores conversations like this be a bad thing? How is this tone deaf?
And in fact, let’s not just focus on the male point of view here. Alma herself is a great character. I love that she rises to the occasion, pushing against Woodcock to give her more character than just put upon victim (even when she’s just telling herself that she’s fighting back). We are also invited to think about class and poverty through Alma — Woodcock’s privilege allows his behaviour and Alma may even stay with him because she dreads returning to her old, lower class life. It is true that we don’t learn much about her background compared to Woodcock’s, which could be a misstep. I do want to know more about Alma and not necessarily through the lens of the powerful Woodcock character. I’ll give PT the benefit of the doubt here though — perhaps he did that to take away some of her power, to show how one-sided Woodcock initially thinks their relationship is.
Some might argue that Alma is a bad example for women because she stays in this toxic relationship — but again, she is a reflection of reality — real people are trapped like this today. The ending makes it crystal clear that it’s supposed to be a sick and twisted story. It’s not romantic, unless you’re into Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome.
I sympathize with someone who is triggered by this film. They’ve been through things that come rushing back to them when they see Woodcock’s behaviour. This means to me that it’s effective in its portrayal of abuse, not that it’s tone deaf and needs to be stricken from existence. People that don’t understand how abuse works might learn something from watching a movie like this.
These think piece writers, seemingly concerned with clicks and shares and creating controversy that isn’t there, treat the movie like it’s the latest Rob Schneider sexist romp, as tasteless as it is useless to society. They think they’re being ‘woke,’ but they’re chipping away at the fabric of intelligent thought. Phantom Thread is a nuanced movie that invites us to think about difficult, complicated concepts. Taking away stories like this with manufactured rage deprives us of understanding of the topics and themes that the movie investigates. Ironically, their Orwellian tampering would cause such societal ills to grow, not go away.
As creators and viewers, we are sending and receiving signals to and from other satellites, other people. We are telling our stories, so that we might better understand one another. If we can understand each other, even for fleeting moments, we might not feel so alone in the universe. Isn’t that the point of art and storytelling?