Phantom Thread

(Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2018)


Is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread a thinly veiled apology for a suffering male genius? The same old, patriarchal tale of masculine dominance and female subservience – with, by the end, a lightly perverse, R.W. Fassbinder-style twist in the power relations between the genders?

Is it a film that suffers from an excess of good taste, censorious tact and forced elegance? Is it a bland, middle-of-the-road film? Is its portrait of British class relations wildly inaccurate? Does it repress the true-life queer biographies and cultural milieux that partly inspired it? Are the clothes deliberately badly designed? Is the musical score, with its relentless piano arpeggios, intentionally awful? Is it, finally, an inadvertent camp comedy that will only be laughed at in future once the first, ephemeral wave of gushing reviews has passed?

These are just some of the hostile, suspicious, mocking reactions that Phantom Thread aroused in its first months of existence, especially in online publications and social media. Passing time has proved kinder to it; by the end of 2019, it had already emerged on various polls among the key films of the decade.

In 1971, Pauline Kael criticised the “politicised morality” that was, in her view, sweeping American culture. She was referring to the tendency to judge whether films (and even people) were good or bad depending on their clear allegiance (or lack thereof) to a particular political value-system. What would the easily irritated Kael have made of our cultural situation today? Politicised morality is everywhere, and it goes under an irksome code word: problematic.

A film is problematic – and does not contribute positively to our cultural conversation (yikes!) – if it does not exactly depict and uphold the most progressive beliefs of our time. Naturally, Phantom Thread strikes many as deeply problematic – especially in its representations of gender relations. One Facebook commentator, for instance, was troubled (I paraphrase) by their perception that that the woman's allotted role is repeatedly to poison then nurture a man; and that man’s role is to idolise, manipulate and ultimately exclude women.

Here we are seeing, in action, the very worst aspect of contemporary identity politics: the snap-judgement on a film (or novel or TV series or anything) by ticking a scorecard of elements of content. Does it contain violence against women? Bad! Are the men patriarchal bullies? Very bad! Does it pass the much-vaunted Bechdel Test by showing two women discussing something other than a man? Very good!

There are very few past masterpieces of cinema or any other art form that fulfil such an absurdly cleaned-up, approved agenda. Not Vertigo (1958), Touch of Evil (1958), or the entire oeuvres of Kenji Mizoguchi, David Cronenberg and Jean-Luc Godard. And not even classics of women’s cinema like Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), Věra Chytilová’s Daisies or Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975)!

It’s true, Phantom Thread focuses on a man and a woman. But, beyond that, what simple conclusion can be drawn from the complicated relationship that it dramatises? Isn’t it entirely possible, for example, that some male viewers might identify with Alma (Vicky Krieps), and some female viewers with Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis)? All such identifications on our part – if the film is rich and multi-layered – are bound to be shifting, relative, complex. In the particular case of Anderson’s film, however, there is an even more intricate – and also liberating – aspect to be considered and fully experienced by the spectator.

Phantom Thread marks a departure for Anderson from the predominantly male-to male, intensely Oedipal dramas of There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012). In fact, it loops back to an underdeveloped strain in his career: the neurotic heterosexual romance, first approached in an anarchic, screwball way by the wonderful Punch-Drunk Love (2002).

But it would be a grave mistake to reduce Anderson’s work in this vein to a Battle of the Sexes fantasy (1940s or ‘50s style). To really appreciate his work, we need to leap beyond the common sense, everyday assumptions about what a human being normally is – including the physical gender with which each of us is born. Wishful thinking? Hear me out.

In this regard, Anderson is in the tradition of Robert Altman, Robert Aldrich and especially Stanley Kubrick. In this lineage, an individual is a strange, endlessly fascinating machine, an unstable and unpredictable amalgam of drives, habits, reflexes, social learning, physical mannerisms, unconscious memories, and more. Any coherent personality is an armour, a mask for others, a network of defences, a way of coping. Gender is only one factor – and not necessarily always the most governing or determining one – in this cluttered workshop of the human being.

Woodcock (Day-Lewis’ final performance before seemingly permanent retirement from acting at 60) is, in this light, is less a strictly gendered “male genius” than a complex mechanism who needs to arrange the conditions of the world around him in order to do the one thing he can successfully do – namely, design dresses. This is the basis for all his eccentricities and neuroses, all his superstitions and attachments (including his mother fixation). (1) His means are his ends; and these means resist being rigidly interpreted as mere, overt symptoms of some deep, underlying cause.

But, sometimes, that mechanism overheats. This is precisely how Alma eventually explains the ritual of poisoning and inflicted sickness to Woodcock: he needs to “calm down” occasionally, before gearing up again for the next bout of creativity.

It is not enough to say, in defence of Phantom Thread, that it is simply beautifully crafted or masterfully directed – which it most certainly is. We need to go deeper for, as Peter Wollen once wrote admiringly of the finale of the 1975 Michelangelo Antonioni film that he co-scripted: “For the remote-controlled crane of The Passenger to function so perfectly, so appropriately, so sensitively, it needed a structure of thought and feeling, within which those movements were directed”. (2)

So: to Alain Masson in Positif (no. 684, February 2018), Phantom Thread is a film about the mystery of how any two processes connect to form something functioning and coherent. How, for instance, will Woodcock’s obsessive tinkering on the body’s surface mesh with Alma’s devotion to the body’s interior – literally, those guts she expressly cooks for, in order to derail and re-set her lover’s body-machine? It is an exciting notion: two people form the one body. (3)

Some have evoked sadomasochism to describe the central relationship in Phantom Thread – and then expressed disappointment that it is not a chic or comic example of bondage-and-discipline like Secretary (2002) or the dreadful The Duke of Burgundy (2014). But Anderson’s film is not sadomasochistic; it’s homeopathic.

The social philosopher Bernard Stiegler [1952-2020] re-introduced the old idea of homeopathy into contemporary discourse – not as science but as a fruitful metaphor. His theory proposes that the only way to treat ills (whether personal or collective) is to administer just a little, but not too much, poison – and for us all to admit that what we may moralistically think is “bad for us” can also be very good for us.

That’s a good lesson to take with you into Phantom Thread.

MORE Anderson: Boogie Nights, Magnolia


1. For a differently inflected, brilliantly argued view of the mother theme in the director’s work, see George Toles, Paul Thomas Anderson (Illinois University Press, 2016). back

2. Peter Wollen, “Caro Antonioni”, Afterall, no. 3 (Spring/Summer 2001), p. 38. Curiously, this article which is so indebted to Roland Barthes’ 1980 tribute to the Italian director – it hinges on the same keyword of aesthetic “vigilance”, and even bears the same title, “Caro Antonioni”! – does not cite Barthes at all. The anxiety of influence! back

3. Cristina Álvarez López and I have made an audiovisual essay (2018) inspired by Masson’s analysis: see it here. back

© Adrian Martin February 2018 (+ updates 2020)

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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