Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread ★★½

Much like TWBB and The Master, this is a film about a deeply unhealthy co-dependent relationship, but this film lacks the socio-historical context that made the affectations and behavior of the characters in TWBB and The Master easier to accept. Phantom Thread exists in a hermetically sealed universe, in largely one location, and PTA seems to me to have chosen mid-50s London as the time period/social milieu entirely for aesthetic reasons. The clothes and production design and music and so on and so forth are indeed all sumptuous and ravishing, but I don't think he's saying anything of note about fashion culture of the time--that an acclaimed male artist is a fussy asshole and treats women like shit certainly does not feel particular to this era. So, where the strange, almost inhuman behavior of characters like Daniel Plainview and Freddie Quell is explicable when these characters are seen as representative of moments in history (the rise of industry and postwar anxiety, respectively), the similarly odd behavior of Woodcock and Alma can't be explained in the same way.

That's not necessarily a bad thing (I find the way Plainview and Eli are so clearly meant to represent capitalism and religion a little simplistic, though that film needs a rewatch) but PTA doesn't adjust his approach in any discernible manner. So, all we're left with as an audience, then, is a dual study of two characters whose behavior is often incredibly alienating to the audience. We're constantly put in the position of asking "Why do these people act this way? What are their motivations? What is driving them?" and PTA often frames them in tight closeup, as if to search their faces for answers. Why does Woodcock keep the company of women when he seems to so clearly see their presence as a burden? Why does he tread over other women but kowtow to Cyril? What is his obsession with his mother? And for Alma, why does she not just leave? Why does she continue to allow herself to be humiliated, shamed, and treated like nothing? (Let's not assume, for the moment, that Alma is operating within an abusive relationship because, though it may be true, that's not the framework the film ultimately sets forth.)

The answer to these questions, I think, all end up being fairly simply. But then there would appear to be a disconnect between the strain and effort of the aesthetic to understand these people, and the ultimate simplicity of their psychology (e.g., Woodcock has mommy issues, Alma wants to be seen as beautiful, etc). The problem is perhaps that PTA wants to create a sense of mystery, a sense of ambiguity, but that ambiguity is just stalling until an inevitable end rather than being a useful or necessary tool for the narrative, keeping the audience in the dark in order to shock them at the end but not providing any insight. PTA's goal here, in other words, is not exploration but rather obfuscation; preventing us, until the very end of the film, from having all the clues necessary to understand this relationship, then cutting us off from these characters once we have actual material to work with! Like Woodcock playing Alma, or perhaps vice versa, PTA is playing a game with the audience, but I don't think I'm much interested in the nature of his game.

The idea that the end should really be the film's midpoint is an idea I've heard a lot from those who don't like the film, but I think those people like the ending but just find it misplaced, whereas I take issue with the ending! The final montage seems to be suggesting an idea that I simply reject having sat through the prior two or so hours (isn't this relationship beautiful? Nah, sorry, it's an awful relationship). And I think that idea is contingent on Alma having the same power as Woodcock, which she simply does not. For this to be a mutually abusive relationship, or an equally abusive relationship, which is what I think the film pushes us towards, Alma's form of abuse would have to exist as something other than a reaction to Woodcock's constant belittling and mistreatment of her (again, because PTA doesn't explore what the relationship becomes once Woodcock understands what Alma is doing to him, we have no way of knowing if this ever does exist as something other than that). My rabbi Adam Katzman thinks that this is the point of the film--exploring the power dynamics between a man and a woman in this time, and locating the only way in which a woman could assert power over a man in this context--which is a solid interpretation, but for me the fact that Woodcock accepts her revenge at the end dismantles any power she might have had, because her power is necessarily couched in his permission to give her power, and thus it becomes not a revenge at all but rather another form of subservience to him.

Maybe that would be interesting to explore if the film was placed entirely in Alma's perspective, and thus the ending would be her own skewed view of this relationship in which she has no power, but despite her narration the film switches perspectives often (the first twenty minutes is focused on Reynolds), and Dr. Harding never provides any kind of objective counterpoint to her subjective telling of this story, and instead just acts as a sounding board. So all we get is the "this is love!" ending, which just strikes me as disingenuous. For this to work as an allegory about relationships in general (i.e., we all mistreat each other and seek power over one another in different ways), it has to work on the literal level first, and I simply cannot accept that this is a good relationship, even on the characters' own terms, and I certainly cannot accept that this is anything like my relationship or any other healthy relationship I can think of!

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