Phantom Thread was well received, well reviewed, and well nominated in 2017. In fact, it’s possibly the last time revered actor Daniel Day-Lewis will grace us with his film presence. But was it also problematic? We certainly, as usual, have thoughts.
A: Hi, I’m new here. I am not new to giving my opinion on maybe-problematic things, so I feel right at home. First, some context on the film itself. We took in a group afternoon screening of Phantom Thread (at the Alamo and the popcorn was divine) in our efforts to watch all Best Picture nominees before the Oscars. I believe I had only seen one other Paul Thomas Anderson flick (Boogie Nights), so I was really not sure what I was getting into based on the super vague preview.
My synopsis is this: Daniel DL plays a dressmaking phenom who has the most mommy issues and is definitely emotionally and physically dependent on his red-lipsticked sister, Cyril. (Early vote for Lesley Manville for my favorite part of this movie). He runs into a feisty waitress by the English countryside, and she stands up to him more than every other female he’s encountered since his mom died. Shenanigans involving mushrooms and semi-poisonings ensue. It’s pretty weird.
I’ll pause there and get Shannon’s and Brooke’s takes on the plot.
B: My dear AM, you are *very* new here, but as you are nothing if not such a good friend, you kindly kicked us off anyway. I’ll first offer a belated welcome to Is This Problematic? — the series where we typically revisit the films of the past (and near-past) and re-examine them under a feminist lens. Historically, our selections have been movies that we loved, at least at some point. Phantom Thread is a different scenario. Admittedly, this was a hate watch, and it got under our skin, just like we knew it would. You did a great job teeing up the premise of this twisted, toxic relationship. So as far as plot goes, I think the only detail I feel compelled to add is that though DDL is revered as a dressmaker, he makes some fugly clothes. Of course, even the worst of those garments isn’t quite so ugly as the personality he persists to impose all over everyone else in this picture.
S, this was your first time running the Phantom gauntlet, how did it hit you? And what’s your take on the central relationship between Reynolds and Alma?
S: B, you and some podcast listening had prepared me in advance, so I’ll admit — I came into this film with some preconceived notions. I knew I was in store for some “tortured genius” propaganda, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how much torture this so-called “genius” would bestow on me. I’ll sum up my general response to this film in three words: Ugh. Just…ugh.
What’s odd is that this movie — on the surface — should tick all of my boxes. Period piece? Check. Huge costuming budget? Check. People with British accents being snide over tea? Double check. But here’s where it goes off the rails: Toxic male who uses and discards women like leftover scraps of dress satin? (What’s the opposite of a check? Put that here.)
I think the thing that bothered me the most about Phantom Thread is that I believe the movie wants us to root for Reynolds and Alma. I think the movie’s position is that theirs is a romantic love story. After all, Alma was the first woman Reynolds couldn’t have his sister do away with on a whim. But therein lies so many problems. Alma is given no backstory; Reynolds first sees her as essentially no different than a dress form; Alma becomes defined only by the position Reynolds gives her; and Reynolds only starts to respect her when she hurts him. It’s worse than just a toxic relationship; it’s a complete dismissal of Alma as an independent person.
And so I say again, ugh. Just ugh. AM, what do you think? Is this the most toxic relationship of all time, or have you seen worse?
A: I’m sure I’ve seen both real and fictional relationships more toxic than this one, but none springs to mind. Wait. GoT‘s Ramsey and Myranda, who literally torture and murder people with dogs and knives. That’s pretty bad. Also: Carrie and Big. So toxic. But Reynolds and Alma actually define “toxic” with her use of actual toxic mushrooms as some sort of twisted fever aphrodisiac.
I had thought she was strictly going for revenge murder, but on second watching, I think perhaps the “give your man an almost-deadly dose of mushrooms and nurse him back to health by reminding him of his dead mom” plan of action was her intention from the moment she approached Cyril. She probably knew he’d fly off the handle by her cooking asparagus in butter. At any rate, it worked: she was able to convince the confirmed bachelor to un-confirm / propose to her.
Mini costume shout-out to one dress and one dress only: the lavender lace ballgown that kicks off the fashion show montage. That isn’t to say I didn’t love other touches, like Shannon mentioned, Phantom Thread has a lot of rich 1950s-era British culture that doesn’t get totally trodden down by the twisted central relationship. A lot of the dresses were pretty if unremarkable, I liked how all the seamstresses wore white while Cyril always wore black, plus I also appreciated that Reynolds wore pink socks and cozy scarves. And while I’m at it, shout-out to the seamstress characters. They stayed up all night because Alma poisoned their boss.
Brooke, back to you. Can you think of a more toxic relationship than R&A? Do you agree that the film wants us to root for this crazy couple? (I do.) Usually I would request everyone weigh in on their favorite costumes, but this is a different premise in which we focus on the problematic. Add costume musings if you’d like!
B: I would throw out Nick and Amy from Gone Girl as maybe the only couple on record that’s more appallingly toxic than this pair. I 100% agree that this movie wants us to cheer for them as a couple, and that kills me. But you know what gets me even more, the arguments that floated around when this picture bowed that took the position that the film’s treatment of Alma is inherently feminist, because of the insane measures she takes to level the playing field. Listen, people, have whatever fan theories you want, but, please, please miss me with this one. I’ll take the alternate cut where Reynolds does start a fight with Cyril and she kills him as she promises she would.
Since you’ve already called out the only good dress, AM, I’ll take a moment to observe the worst dress, the wedding dress for the princess with the built-in boob shelf. Ugh. And speaking of ugh. I have an idea. Since it took all of eight minutes for us to get our first “ugh” in the movie — I believe it was when Alma called Reynolds a hungry boy — let’s compare notes on the absolute most “ugh”-worthy line or moment in the picture. And I’m just going to assume that these will come from Reynolds, but I’ll accept them from anyone.
I’ll go first. Mine stems from the fight over the use of butter with the asparagus. And though this whole exchange is absurd, the opening salvo from Reynolds is the one that sticks with me. “What the hell is it about? Are you a special agent sent here to ruin my evening and possibly my entire life?” What. A. Baby.
S, give us your most “ugh” moment and your thoughts on positive reads of this as a feminist film.
S: There were so many “ugh” moments; it’s tough to pick just one. But if I had to choose, I think I’ll go with Reynolds’ reaction to Alma’s predecessor Johanna, when she deigns to confront him about his lack of attentiveness at breakfast: “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation, please.” Reynolds has built a world in which everyone defers to him…which brings me to your second request, B. The fact that some read this story as feminist makes me ill. Feminism is NOT about tearing a man down to make him love you; feminism is about mutual respect and equal opportunity to build the life that you want. Reynolds and Alma do not have an equal partnership; they have a dysfunctional power dynamic in which he asserts his power, she tears him down, he power grabs again, and she tears him down again.
In my feminist reimagining of this film, Alma and Cyril tell Reynolds to fuck off in the first act and go start their own fashion house — free of boob shelves — which revolutionizes the London fashion scene and causes the House of Woodcock to go the way of tight-rolled jeans.
AM, what moment made you nearly vom? Then hit us with your stray observations.
A: How about the FOUR times Reynolds asks if Alma has a gun during the Buttered Asparagus Fight? How about this “tender” request as she poisons him a second time: “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick.” Or perhaps this missive about the Buttered Asparagus itself? “Right now, I’m just admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you’ve prepared it.”
Now, as a palate cleanser, I feel it’s appropriate to point out the lines I did in fact like quite a bit:
- Reynolds calling Cyril “my old so-and-so”
- I want to steal this even though I officially don’t approve of saying this to one’s significant other (or waitperson, for that matter): “The tea is going out. The interruption is staying right here with me.”
- And finally, the aforementioned Cyril quit rage moment: “Don’t pick a fight with me, you certainly won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor. Understood?”
Brooke, any final moments you did like?
But, I do have some stray observations to air.
- Like, really, what is the deal with Cyril and Reynolds?
- This movie fuels my desire to start our butter cult even more than my love of Victoria Sponge
- How awkward was that first night at the Woodcock London home when Reynolds was all “your room is over there, buhbyeee”?
- Is it weird that I now want to check the seams of all my clothes for secret messages and such?
Okay, S, give us your stray observations before thinking about this movie makes us all sick.
S: Hopefully my stray observations will be way less objectionable than Reynolds’ breakfast observations:
- This Alma quote — a contender for my most “ugh” moment — makes me squirm every time I think of it: “I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open with only me to help. And then I want you strong again.”
- To supplement my feminist reimagining of this film, I’m adding a scene where Reynolds meets Coco Chanel and tries to pull his narcissistic bullshit on her (I don’t even know if they are of the same era), and she — frocked in a fabulous little black dress and pearls — destroys him with a look.
Alright, AM, take us home. Hit me with your cringe math.
A: I was told specifically there would be no math. So I will take a shot at this but I promise nothing in terms of accuracy. Also, I believe you all might use smaller numbers (plus one and minus two, etc.) but as per the usual, I’m gonna up the ante:
- — 1,000 for toxic masculinity
- — 1,000 for toxic (LITERALLY) femininity
- + 500 for Cyril
- + 100 for Cyril and Reynold’s mom, who taught them to sew and be self-sufficient even if she didn’t teach her son how to not be a jerk to women
- + 250 for all of the sewing ladies
- — 750 for most of the dialogue coming out of Reynolds’ mouth at any time. Slash ALL of the dialogue.
- — 1,000 for the dresses, specifically the boob shelf wedding dress but excluding the “special” lace gown that was indeed very special.
- — 100 for the “hungry boy” comment. Blech.
After all of that dramatic number configuring, that leaves me with = -3,000. Does that sound right? Wrap up us, B.
B: I knew having you join this party would take things up a notch AM. Just as I know that you love to say you make your own rules because you’re a recovering lifelong rule follower. I love it, and I’m going to leave your math to stand alone because as you say, we don’t trade in numbers that big. And on our planet, a negative number would be a good thing.
Now that we know where AM stands, I’ll throw out a few figures of my own, according to our usual scale of 1-10 cringes.
- +9 cringes for the being that is Reynolds
- +3 more cringes for his dismissal of butter
- +1 cringe for Cyril playing his games and dumping his ladies for him
- -5 cringes for the time Cyril threatens to kill Reynolds and when she defends Alma (to Reynolds’ great irritation)
- +1 cringe for “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick
My calculations say that leaves us at a well-and-truly earned 9 cringes. That leaves it to you to wrap us up, S. Math me, my friend, before I’m sick.
S: All this math is making my head spin! I’ll add (see what I did there?) some to the party.
- +12 cringes for the “he’s a genius and therefore allowed to be a monster” rhetoric
- -3 cringes for Cyril
Which leaves me, also, at 9 cringes. Oof. Not pleased with the Academy for making this one a contender. Do better, Academy.
Next time we’ll dive into the beloved teen classic 10 Things I Hate About You because there are few things we love more than Shakespeare-inspired high school movies and Heath Ledger (RIP).
Main image credit: Focus Features
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