Many film critics have described Phantom Thread as a love story. But for myself and many others, it is not a love story but a horror film. Phantom Thread unravels the seams (pun intended) of toxic masculinity that underlies emotionally abusive heterosexual relationships. By exposing the horror of emotional abuse in graphic detail, it has provided many survivors with a cathartic viewing experience. As one abuse survivor and fan of the film, J, says, “It carries all the tension, timing and anxiety of a horror film, but director Paul Thomas Anderson smuggles that experience in clothed in the garb of a romance. If you read the film as a romance, it requires you to buy into a series of deeply unhealthy and toxic behaviors.”
In the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, some critics have called the film “out of touch,” and have accused it of romanticizing an unhealthy relationship. But the film’s fascination with the power dynamics it depicts is not the same as romanticization. As my friend F, who is currently divorcing her emotionally abusive husband, says, “To claim that the movie dismisses or makes light of abuse is a misreading of the film’s argument.”
Phantom Thread is a gorgeous film loaded with so many visual details that it requires multiple viewings to absorb them all, and to process and digest the unsettling relationship between Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps). Esteemed fashion designer Reynolds lives by strict rules: Everything in his life must be done exactly as he commands, and everyone in his life must work in service of his genius. Everything about his life is a routine, “a game,” as Alma says, and he will berate anyone who dares interrupt that routine. Alma, his new lover, is a woman he loves only as a muse and art-object, but whose actual human presence in his life he perceives as an “interruption.” Starting from their first date, when he orders her to remove her lipstick because “I want to see who I’m talking to,” his controlling behavior dictates their relationship. One of the film’s most memorable lines comes when Alma brings him tea that he didn’t ask for while he is working, and after expressing his anger that she dared do something he didn’t plan, he quips, “The tea is leaving, but the interruption is staying right here with me!”
During the multiple times I’ve seen Phantom Thread, the audience always laughs at this line and at Reynolds’ many ridiculous reactions to Alma’s attempts to “love him the way I want,” such as when he responds to her cooking his asparagus with too much butter by yelling, “This was an ambush. Are you sent here to ruin my evening... and quite possibly, my entire life?” However, during this part and the countless other times Reynolds berates Alma for doing anything that doesn’t fit his routine in ways that seem comically blown out of proportion, I cringed while the audience laughed. Reynolds might seem like a caricature to viewers who have not experienced emotional abuse, but for viewers who have, he is all too real.
F says, “Reynolds' insistence that Alma eat quietly at breakfast was so reminiscent of my husband's demeanor throughout our relationship that I began to cry while watching the movie. My husband was able to convince me through years of subtle manipulation that his comfort was the priority in our marriage, and so I was often made to feel that I had to alter my behavior in large and small ways to accommodate his needs and to make him happy. Like Alma, I was not allowed to speak loudly, I had to walk with slippers on wood floors, and I had to be careful to chew quietly while eating. My husband's way of doing things was the ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ way, and I was expected to conform.” Although Alma “stays” and “fights back,” she is still being emotionally abused. Her literally toxic method of fighting back, which many critics have said represents her gaining power over him, does not lessen the fact that she is victimized.
Phantom Thread recognizes that abuse is not healthy or romantic and is rooted in fragility. Anderson shows how Reynolds’ abusive behavior comes from weakness. Simply put, Reynolds is a man-child, and is the butt of the film’s jokes. Reynolds may create dresses for the House of Woodcock (his last name, which Anderson and Day-Lewis conceived in an attempt to make the most ridiculous name possible, is itself a parody of masculinity), but his sister, the iconic Cyril (Lesley Manville), wields far more power than him because she runs every part of the business while he simply sketches and sews. Reynolds is so dependent on Cyril that, after Alma orders her and everyone out of the house so that she can create a surprise date night for herself and Reynolds, he pouts and asks, “Where’s Cyril?” multiple times when he sees she’s gone.
Reynolds is a “spoiled little boy,” as Alma says, who is so obsessed with his dead mother that he sews locks of her hair into the linings of his coats so that she is always with him. Shortly after telling Cyril that he feels their mother’s presence is closer to him than ever, he meets Alma, and tells her, “I feel I’ve been looking for you for a very long time.” Later in the film, Reynolds falls ill and has a vision of his mother’s ghost standing in his room. When Alma enters the room, her ghost disappears, reinforcing the parallels between Alma and his mother.
Reynolds is ultimately pathetic: He cannot survive without mothering figures such as Cyril and Alma to carry out his business and support his genius, and asserts control over others to defend against his own neediness.
Reynolds is controlling because he is, far more than Alma, deeply insecure. Anderson’s pointed critique of Reynolds’ fragility makes Phantom Thread not a film that romanticizes an abusive relationship, but a film that rigorously explores how one works, in a way that has resonated with many women with abusive male partners. J says, “I think one of the skills you learn when you survive abuse is to hold two conflicting ideas in your mind at one time. There's a difference between recognizing someone's humanity and forgiving them for their actions. Phantom Thread is asking you to do the former with Reynolds, but I don’t think it's asking you to do the latter.”
One critique I’ve seen leveled at the film is that it is misogynistic because, while Anderson gives Reynolds a backstory, he does not give Alma a backstory and we only know her in the context of Reynolds’ existence, as his muse and lover. This is a valid critique, but I disagree that this makes the film “anti-feminist,” because Alma herself only sees herself in relation to Reynolds. The film therefore chillingly portrays how heterosexual women often define themselves in terms of their relationships to men, especially in abusive relationships. F says, “My husband was controlling of my speech habits and would correct my grammar in conversation, even in front of friends. He disapproved when I would see my friends on my own. By doing all of these things he had the effect of destroying my sense of self.”
Similarly, Alma declares she’s given Reynolds “every piece of” herself, so that her sense of self is based on his needing her. Unfortunately, this is the truth of many people’s lives, and seeing this loss of selfhood happen onscreen is important in order to shine a light on the dynamics of emotional abuse. In response to the critique that Phantom Thread “only ever considers [Alma] in the context of [Reynolds],” F explains how this narrative choice actually deepens the film’s portrayal of an unhealthy relationship: “Possibly the most problematic aspect of the story is that Alma is literally and figuratively Reynolds's mannequin, but by becoming that symbol she only reinforces Anderson's main goal to show the lengths to which an artist will dehumanize, objectify, and destroy others in the name of his craft.”
I’d like to end this piece with something J told me about why she values Phantom Thread, which I think explores why it resonates with so many women. “In abuse, there's no victory, only survival. And the film pulls back the curtain on some of the compromises we make in our lives and the changes we make to ourselves to survive abuse. Phantom Thread made me ask myself some real questions about how my abuse changed me, and I'm still grappling with what I found. That's a valuable experience, and one I haven't had before.” For this reason, Phantom Thread is a rich text on how we accept horror disguised as romance that asks us to deconstruct and rewrite the toxic narrative of emotional abuse.
top image: Phantom Thread
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Zoey Peresman is a native New Yorker, social worker, and freelance writer with an academic background in literary and film studies and theory. As a social worker, she believes the arts are a powerful source of healing and empowerment. Her main writing interests are in film, music, cultural studies, mental health, and queer and feminist theory.