The Twisted Knots of Power and Control in Phantom Thread

NOTE: This piece contains spoilers for Phantom Thread.


Phantom Thread is a film of such remarkable craft and exquisite execution that I find myself in the extremely rare position of admiring it, even liking it, despite finding its message somewhat deplorable. Like the gowns that are the obsessive life’s work of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock, this is a film in which every element has been meticulously handled. The production is sumptuous. The dialogue is elegant, economical, and razor-sharp. There are no out-of-place phrases, no throwaway lines, and the lead actors — DDL, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville in an extraordinary performance as Reynolds’ sister Cyril — imbue their characters with such psychological complexity that we are fully transported into the world the film creates. Everything is exactly as it should be. That kind of extraordinary craftsmanship and artistry makes the film a joy to behold, even as its explorations of abusive power dynamics end up reinforcing troubling notions about relationships and gender.

Reynolds Woodcock is an arrogant, self absorbed, cruel, abusive dressmaker. Very early on we see that he “collects” women and then grows bored with them, at which point his sister ushers them out of Reynolds’ office studio and out of his life. Therefore, when he meets his next muse at a restaurant one morning, we already know that he is possessive, demanding, and ultimately dismissive. Even his first interaction with her is like a kind of test, as he gives her a lengthy and elaborate breakfast order, then holds on to the slip of paper on which she wrote it, requiring her to prove that she can remember it all.

Reynolds is a fascinating figure, so similar to so many male geniuses we see onscreen, and yet, because of the movie’s framing, subtly different as well. We often see images onscreen of brilliant men who are cold, cruel, and prone to explosive bouts of anger, in which the film frames all of this as a necessary component of the man’s genius. This mindset has long existed in Hollywood, as well, where the bad behavior of highly respected male auteurs is just accepted, while those few women who hold such positions are criticized as “difficult” if they ever lose their temper or raise their voice.

This isn’t a film that just replicates unhealthy power dynamics; it puts them under a microscope

Phantom Thread is refreshing to some degree because we are not meant to simply accept Reynolds’ behavior as the necessary cost of his genius. We are meant to think him fickle, overly demanding, cruel, and emotionally abusive. The film hones in on his microaggressions and the little cruelties he doles out to Alma day in and day out which add up to create an oppressive atmosphere where Reynolds has total and absolute control. Reynolds is a master of gaslighting, and rarely has a film so accurately captured this particular brand of emotional and psychological abuse.

This isn’t a film that just replicates unhealthy power dynamics; it puts them under a microscope, and in so doing, there is a kind of critique that takes place. We know that the way things are between them is not the way things “should be” between any two people who purport to love and care for each other.

Alma doesn’t have the social standing to hold her own against Reynolds. She has given up any life she knew prior and now lives and breathes Reynolds: his work (during which she is routinely belittled or ignored), his home where she lives but which will never really be her home, everything about her existence is shaped now by him. She may at times seem on the verge of leaving Reynolds, but if you know anything about abusive relationships, you know that you never feel free to leave. Making you feel stuck is part of the strategy. Yet within these confines, Alma finds a rather shocking way of pushing back against his control.

At one point, she secretly feeds Reynolds poisonous mushrooms, leading us to suspect that she is trying to murder him in a desperate attempt to free herself from his control and abuse. Unexpectedly, however, she’s just trying to render him ill so that, for a little while, he becomes dependent on her. By making him bedridden, she’s able to fleetingly acquire a kind of power in a situation where she otherwise always has none. During these bouts of illness, Reynolds becomes warmer towards her, more vulnerable. Reynolds is obsessed with his mother, and the Freudian element here is unavoidable; one could say that during these episodes, Reynolds becomes a little boy again and Alma mothers him back to health. Traditional, restrictive gender roles are not escaped; one set is just briefly swapped out for another.

What’s truly remarkable about this deeply unhealthy relationship dynamic is that, when Alma reveals her scheme to Reynolds during a period of particular tension and difficulty between them, rather than reacting in horror, he embraces it enthusiastically, kissing Alma and devouring the poisonous omelette she’s prepared for him with relish. It’s as if, for him, too, there is a momentary bit of freedom and liberation in shedding the persona of the demanding adult Reynolds and letting Alma nurse him through his recovery. It’s unexpected, bizarre, and fascinating. But where does it leave us?

Here, we have two strong-willed people who, rather than seeking a way out of the harmful power dynamics of their relationship, come to a mutual understanding about how they will continue perpetuating those dynamics in a twisted way that works for them. Phantom Thread examines emotional abuse with a rare level of clarity, but ultimately doesn’t seek a way out from the prison, or offer up a viable alternative for how relationships, particularly relationships between men and women in a deeply patriarchal society, can function. Its endpoint almost seems to suggest that this arrangement, one in which Alma gets to upend things and dole out some abuse of her own every now and then, is acceptable, or is the best one could hope for. It says that the few days every now and then that Alma gets to spend caring for a man temporarily rendered too ill to berate her for chewing her toast too loudly render the two of them fitting partners, and that the cycle of abuse is a perfectly acceptable way of showing love as long as everyone is clear what their role is.

I can’t get down with that. But I’m grateful to Phantom Thread for bringing these issues into focus, and making viewers think about the dynamics of relationships in ways that few films do.