Earlier this month, legendary Marvel comics writer and editor Stan Lee was accused of sexually harassing his in-home nurses. Reaction on social media was immediate—people leaped onto Twitter to declare that they would still see the upcoming Black Panther movie. No one had said they shouldn’t, and Lee’s involvement with Marvel films is minimal—he does cameos in them, but that’s about the extent of it. Nonetheless, accusations of sexual misconduct directed at Lee led a number of people to be concerned not for the alleged victims, but for the nearest vaguely relevant piece of artwork.
The MeToo movement has revealed an ugly culture of sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood. But even as predators have been named and revealed, certain priorities remain the same. Specifically, male artistic genius still gets more attention, and more respect, than women’s safety. When comedian Louis C.K.’s career came to a halt because of allegations of sexual harassment, fans mourned—often despite themselves—because it tainted the art they loved. Academic Laura Kipnis seemingly bemoaned not actor Kevin Spacey’s victims, but the fact that reshoots “erased” the actor from his latest film. Art by men overshadows the women those men victimize—a truth that Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Phantom Thread, both critiques and embraces. (This story contains spoilers.)
Phantom Thread—opening in wide release on Friday—is a historical drama set in the 1950s, focused on the fictional fashion couturier Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Reynolds is a genius—and, like many geniuses in life and on screen, he is also an asshole. He is fussy, persnickety and obsessive, and he wields those traits like weapons against his various girlfriends.
But while Reynolds is not Harvey Weinstein, or Louis C.K., or Kevin Spacey, the film still reproduces the logic which has made it so difficult to hold Weinstein, or C.K., or Spacey to account.
In one of the first scenes of the film, Reynolds’ live-in lover attempts to get him to talk to her, or even look at her. He responds by telling her he has a dress to deliver and that he therefore has “no time for confrontation.” Later, he deputizes his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), to break up with his girlfriend for him.
Reynolds’ relationship with his next girlfriend, Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), is similarly controlling and emotionally manipulative. On their first date, he wipes off her lipstick because he prefers women without it; after they start living together, he snaps at her for buttering her toast too loudly. He is the artistic genius. Her job is to inspire him to make great clothes, and to stay out of his way.
The film knows that Reynolds is a jerk. But it also wants him to be a sympathetic romantic figure. He may be emotionally abusive, selfish and impossible, but that’s part of his amazing genius. Besides, Alma can handle him. She repeatedly tells him he’s too finicky, and stands up for herself when he snaps at her. Alma and Reynolds, it turns out, (spoiler) even have a kind of S&M relationship. Whenver he gets too unpleasant, she surreptitiously feeds him poisoned mushrooms, making him horribly ill before she nurses him back to health. (He knowingly accepts this as a part of their relationship.)
The problem, though, is that, despite the film’s efforts to make Alma into a worthy adversary, their relationship is still entirely about the great artist Reynolds. Romance stories aimed specifically at women generally provide background and motivation for both male and female leads. Fifty Shades of Grey is rightly maligned for numerous reasons, but Anastasia Steele does have a family, ambitions and a history that extends back before the instant she met Christian.
In contrast, we know nothing about Alma before Reynolds finds her waitressing in a rural eatery. We never meet her parents; we never find out what she wanted to do, if anything, before she became Reynolds’ model and girlfriend. At the opening of the film, she says she gave Reynolds “every part of herself,” but that’s an obfuscation. As far as the film is concerned, there is no part of Alma separate from Reynolds. She has no independent past, present or future; without him, she doesn’t exist.
Alma isn’t the only woman who devotes herself to Reynolds. His sister, too, is entirely subsumed in Reynolds’ art. Cyril never marries, and as far as we see, has no life outside running Reynolds’ business and smoothing the rough patches in his life. Cyril, like Alma, is presented as a strong woman who does not allow Reynolds to steamroll her. But like the many female dressmakers and seamstresses and cooks who surge around Reynolds’ household, she works to advance Reynolds’ goals, and appears to have none of her own.
Women must subordinate themselves to art in Phantom Thread—and it is Alma herself who makes this argument most forcefully. One of Reynolds’ clients is a wealthy, overweight woman who is an alcoholic and may have other mental health issues as well. If she were a male artist, her idiosyncratic behavior would be a sign of her genius. Since she’s a woman, though, she’s just viewed as disgusting.
Alma is enraged when the woman passes out wearing Reynolds’ dress, and goads Reynolds to demand the garments return immediately. Alma strips it off the sleeping woman herself. Afterward, Alma and Reynolds’ relationship moves to a new level of intensity. They are brought together by their passionate belief that Reynolds’ perfect dresses are more important, more sacred, more valuable than the flawed, disgusting, unworthy women who wear them.
Again, Phantom Thread takes pains to show that the relationship between Reynolds and Alma is consensual. Reynolds’ abusive behavior is not condoned, and he’s even specifically punished for it by Alma and the film. Even Reynolds believes the punishment is just.
But while Reynolds is not Harvey Weinstein, or Louis C.K., or Kevin Spacey, the film still reproduces the logic which has made it so difficult to hold Weinstein, or C.K., or Spacey to account. In Phantom Thread, men have genius, and women are valuable, admirable and worthy of attention to the extent that they support that genius. Not all male genius artists are abusers. But it’s hard to bring down the ones who are if women matter less than a phantom thread.