This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Sarah_C’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I’m kind of astonished at the cult of the troubled genius that endures, to this very day. It strikes me as very sad the degree to which we indulge creatives at the tops of their field to whatever degree they desire. Maybe at some point we’ll wag our finger at them or warn them that it will all end in tears, but I guess that’s not enough to satiate some sort of morbid curiosity. Is that why we continue to allow them to exploit the women and men under their control for our own entertainment?
Which is I guess why I was so shocked and disappointed by Phantom Thread (although I know I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised). Why is it that we’re making movies about troubled geniuses (read: controlling, manipulative bullies who happen to have creative control over industries) and allowing them to indulge their every whim? Why is it that we keep making excuses for this kind of behaviour? Why is the run-time of Phantom Thread focused on the least interesting character and allowing us to revel in his vindictive (but surprisingly bland) actions time and time again?
Look, I’m not trying to say that Phantom Thread is trying to condone these kind of actions. What I’m saying is, the movie doesn’t really say anything about them, ultimately, and just allows them to happen, and then offers up some very weak defences/explanations for them. He misses his mother, you say? Ah! That’s probably good enough, or whatever. I guess I’m getting tired of these attempts to humanise dickheads. It makes it so much more frustrating when there are much more interesting characters around, such as Reynolds’ sister, Cyril. What the heck was her deal, anyway? I would have much preferred to see a film focused on her. Or, at least a film where she followed through on her threat to bitch-slap Reynolds to the other side of his life. It’s a pity, because in the scenes focused on the industry of the many women working overtime making dresses for House of Woodcock, at times it’s almost as though Paul Thomas Anderson realises that these are people, rather than faceless masses, being exploited for the whims of a cruel tyrant. But not enough for him to actually humanise them: not enough for him to focus on their stories.
Instead we get Reynold’s point of view bleeding in to every aspect of the film. Despite the fact that Alma is ostensibly the narrator, we get events told from Reynold’s point of view for some reason, as demonstrated by the magnified crunching and chewing noises coming from Alma at breakfasts. Was this cognitive dissonance intended or a misstep? To me it felt uncomfortably as though PTA couldn’t remove himself from the point of view of Reynolds in order to demonstrate his point – or, in other words, his argument couldn’t be made without having Alma as the butt of the joke. Not great.
I’ve seen a couple of readings of the ending: one, that we’re supposed to read it as happy: two people have found each other and have found a way to make it work. Eeeehhh, okay. I don’t think that’s what PTA was going for, but if it was? I think Reynolds’ gaslighting behaviour had a big effect on shaping Alma, so I’m gonna give that a big no thank you. If it’s that two horrible people have found each other and found a way to keep each other busy for the rest of time, that still kind of falls down since Reynolds was, as previously stated, gaslighting her pretty badly for a long time. My gut is that it’s meant to be a not very positive ending, and in fact might not really be an ending. But you know what? I don’t think that’s enough, because we’ve spent plenty of time being encouraged to chortle along with Reynolds and tut-tut at his naughty behaviour. Next time, let’s not do that.