Phantom Thread: Never Cursed
I have never been so convinced that reviewers have missed the central theme of a film than in the case of “Phantom Thread,” the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson starring Daniel Day-Lewis. It is not about a man driven to aesthetic perfection more than money and power, whatever A.O. Scott seems to think. Nor is it, as he puts it, “The wrenching tale of a woman’s love for a man and a man’s love for his work.” Nor is it about breakfast, as Anthony Lane suggests in The New Yorker, although that is a more interesting possibility, and it is true that breakfast is an important setting for the major moments in the film. Like Lane, I thought of Hitchcock in watching the film, and specifically of “Rebecca,” but the film is in the end, more of a love story, than a horror story, which is perhaps its central surprise.
SPOILERS For the first third of the film, I thought this film was a version of Pygmalion– a master craftsman certain of all things but most especially his own taste uses a woman for the development of his craft and tries to form her toward his liking to better suit his craft. During the second third of the film, I began to think the film was about an abusive relationship, and a woman’s efforts to exact revenge. The surprise at the end of the film is that it is about a strong women’s capacity to draw out the softness and vulnerability of a man through a somewhat violent approach in order to allow him to change to become a better person with new possibilities.
The whole film portrays the way the main character, Reynolds Woodcroft, is steeped in tradition, stuck in tradition. He is stuck not only in terms of his craft, whose fabric he thinks will always be in good taste even when the woman he is currently attending to does not agree, but also in terms of the way he moves through women, leaving it to his sister to break off the relationships. He is stuck in finding his stability and his possibilities in his sister and not in these women. He is stuck in mourning for his mother that keeps him thinking certain things are required. He is stuck in supposing that his way of eating breakfast, as given to his whims from breakfast to breakfast it can be, is the right way, buttering of toast be damned.
What is shocking about the film is that he is unstuck not by some extravagant event, but by the cunning of Alma, a woman who appears to be another in a long line of women filling the same role for him. Except she is not just another. She sees that he needs to break out. She refuses to just become the Pygmalion for him. She recognizes the facade. And she goes to great lengths to break him out of his way of being. She hurts him in order to show him the possibilities of a new dynamic between them, of the possibilities of not having to be in control. Drawing on themes of sadomasochism while also challenging some of the tired stereotypes of BDSM relationships, she is not so much harming him for her pleasure, as she is harming him to allow him to be otherwise than he feels forced to be.
She poisons him in order to force him to reckon with himself. Not only does she poison him, but she commits to a regular course of poisoning in order to break him out of the patterns of strident rigidity that have forced him into the demands of tradition. And for this, he loves her. The most surprising moment of the film is after she presents him with an omelet, having made none for herself, suggesting that there is some awareness that he will be eating alone. She states what will happen. The scene feels dark. The tone at this point makes us think she is exacting revenge. She tells him that he will eat, and he will suffer, and this suffering will allow him to return to her and to his work much better than he had been before. On his response hangs the whole of the film, “Kiss me, before I am too sick.” It is because of this response that the apparent poisoning can be seen as what allows their relationship to be, as the message he sews into a wedding dress reads, “Never Cursed.”
What follows at the very end are scenes of his sickness and then scenes of their life to come, with children, living it seems quite happily. My first inclination was to see her poisoning scheme as an effort to make him as he had made her, and I still think there is something to that. But she never fully concedes to be made for him as he does for her, and this point is important. The worry would be that she ends up being just another tool for his success, just as his mother and his sister had been before. I’m not convinced that she is, though, and in retrospect, I don’t know if the mother and sister are either. They are each shown to be in their way more independent and full of their own will beyond serving his needs, and it is this independence that ultimately ends up enabling him to thrive in a way that the women who consent to become the Pygmalion figures for him do not. That’s why I thought Owen Gleiberman at Variety was so wrong to think that the film was about toxic masculinity.
Going into the movie, I expected it to be a character piece along the lines of “Remains of the Day” and I think it is. It is a kind of period piece in which little seems to happen and yet much is accomplished. I’m not sure it is the kind of movie that you like, but it is certainly a movie that does not accord with the expectations of its structure and mood. It is this discord between its mood and its ending that makes it so provocative.