*Spoilers for the American film Phantom Thread from 2017*
In Phantom Thread, a raging misogynist buckles under the claustrophobia of the oppressive system meant to protect him. Like all men in power, he’d rather lose control over his life than give up his power; he’d rather suffer punishment than treat others equally than choose to bring down the hegemony that made him deserving of punishment.
The world of Reynolds Woodcock, a 19th-century master dressmaker, runs on the productivity and professionalism of women. The workers use a back entrance, are on time and deliver superior quality work every time. Reynolds’ sister Cyril serves as a manager/show runner of this factory/house. Reynolds is portrayed as the talent; he designs great dresses. And as we have seen with portrayals of great men, he needs a specific set of circumstances to unfold like clockwork around him to achieve this “genius.” He is cold, arrogant, and ignorant of the feelings of those around him.
While on a trip to the country, Reynolds falls for the first sprightly, soulful woman (Alma) he meets. With Alma reciprocating his feelings with intense curiosity and the hope of youth, they quickly become lovers. His routine is winded, but Alma’s youthful cheer and unflinching loyalty to his work make her irresistible to him. Eventually, they fall apart, but she is not done with him. She draws him out, and she reins him in. Completely given over, he is happy again, around the arms of a woman who knows to control him, but permits him to live in his hegemonic structure. She even fantasizes of him as a changed man with whom she has a happy future; but for now, she will settle for controlling him using his need for punishment.
Thanks to the attention to detail in the film’s plot and making, Phantom Thread turns into a sublime inversion of the classic drama of the male hero’s will and his unattainable conquest. It is a cynical and satirical work overall, but it falls prey to conventional male-film making in the saddest of ways– throughout its narration, the film has a backdoor of sympathy to its misogynistic male protagonist.
Sympathetic portrayals of men show us more than they intend to. When done as exquisitely as this, they showcase the structure of the world around them that enables their menace.
The women who work for Reynolds respect and treat him with undeserved kindness. He has abused this kindness for long, failing to make friends with them, despite their kindness. When he first meets Alma, he intrusive and oppressive; she flinches, but is more bemused than bothered by it. He warms up to her quickly, telling her all his vulnerabilities on their first date. His face is filled with the joy of a younger man falling in love, or a weary, lonely man unbeknownst an ally.
Alma and Cyril belong to different classes. Reynolds benefits of it, so unquestioningly enables it. Alma seamlessly forms allies with the workers at the house of Woodcock. Cyril jolts every time she realizes the increasing control Alma has over Reynolds. I cannot tell if Cyril is a caricature or not. She is, as many other reviews call her, Mrs Danvers-esque. Is this a male filmmakers nod to Hitchcock? Is it a misogynist’s need to show that women also cause problems for women?
The quest for liberation is supposed to act as a great leveler. One class of women cannot be liberated while others are not. And this vicious cycle is starkly exposed in Phantom Thread. We watch as Reynolds follows Cyril’s word with all his relationships in society. We learn that she enables his ignorance as long they can use his hegemony to maintain their status quo. We ignore the parts that show liberated women of the upper class using the hegemony of men to assert their superiority over the women of lower classes. We accept that women with class privilege are forever at the behest of men.
As such, Reynolds does not understand much of anything, let alone the intersectional nature of liberation. He gets confused and agitated over the contradicting claims of Alma and Cyril over him. All he knows is that only these women can protect him. And so, he follows them.
Phantom Thread is yet another (unnecessary?) tale of the crippling effect oppression has on the oppressor. It attempts to tell us about how men hold on to misogyny, living with the trepidation of a swift and unforgiving reckoning. As things stand in the film, it is slow and demanding. Is one worse than the other? I am not sure it matters.