Break Up with Him at Breakfast

Phantom Thread is an appropriately knotty and tangled film about love, genius, grief and ghosts. It’s a glacially cold but beautiful piece, much like one of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis)’s lifelessly sumptuous gowns, that intrigued but failed to enchant me although it did make me want to order an absurdly large breakfast. And start drinking Lapsang Souchong.

What I unsurprisingly found most interesting about the film was its exploration of Reynolds Woodcock’s (a knowingly excessively masculine name) complete and utter dependence on the women who surround him. The space in which he lives and works is inhabited entirely by women. There’s his resident muse, his archly resigned sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and his small army of submissive seamstresses who do the “woman’s work” that is the actual crafting of the dresses he designs. He is quite literally haunted by the memory of his dead mother, clearly alluded to in the title of the film, and as far as I can recall barely interacts with any men at all.

At first glance the film is as much a story of Vicky Krieps’ Alma, Reynolds’ newest muse, as it is of the dressmaker himself. The film is bookended by her narration and we experience the story largely through her eyes. In his review for Sight and Sound Adam Nayman writes that Phantom Thread marks Paul Thomas Anderson’s first foray into female subjectivity “after two decades of fixating on macho masochism”. I would argue that the film is still focused on macho masochism but even more so on the female masochism that accommodates it. As soon as they meet Alma is plucked from her waitressing job and swept up in Reynolds’ icily elegant world. Initially she is dazzled by his attention and although she quickly starts butting heads with him over his pernickety nature she learns to butter her toast silently. We see him start to tire of her and in her resigned tone Cyril offers to discard her on his behalf as we’ve seen her do with his previous muse. But Alma clings on a little longer and after he falls mysteriously ill and she nurses him back to health he abruptly proposes marriage. Their relationship soon sours again however and while he contemptuously eats a mushroom omelette she has cooked for him it is revealed that she has intentionally poisoned him several times with the wild mushrooms solely so that she can take care of him. “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick”, he says, grinning with delight at her transgression, and Jonny Greenwood’s stunning score swells darkly.

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It would be easy to view Alma as the victor in their power struggle. By deliberately debilitating Reynolds she forces him into a position of vulnerability. He allows her to mother him and this prompts a resurgence of love stemming from his unresolved feelings of grief for his real mother. “I feel as if I’ve been looking for you for a very long time” he tells her. So far, so Freud. She reignites his affection by cooking, that most fundamental of feminine domestic activities, and uses poison which is often considered a women’s weapon in popular culture and is of course associated with Snow White’s wicked stepmother. The preparation of food plays a significant role throughout the film and you could easily argue that Alma utilising cooking to control her husband is a subversion of the role of subservient woman. But ultimately while her choice to play the dutiful wife does give her some semblance of power she is still sacrificing her own independence in order to support this supposed genius.

The end of the film is clearly not intended to be a happily ever after as the pair remain locked in this toxic relationship where any time Reynolds’ attention drifts he’ll allow Alma to feed him more mushrooms and gain the illusion of the upper hand. He is still dependent on her as Muse and as Mannequin but through her manipulation she forces him to become dependent on her as Mother. And of course this is precisely what he’s always wanted. There’s an implication that she has gained control over him but ultimately she has trapped herself in these roles which she must perform in order for him to continue to create. These performances mean her life remains entirely focused on his needs, just as his sister Cyril’s life has been. Alma demonstrating a degree of agency and successfully outsmarting him doesn’t stop her being a victim of his emotional abuse.

It’s debatable as to whether Phantom Thread romanticises the emotional abuse at its core. Paul Thomas Anderson does appear to at least be aware that he has written a film about an unbalanced relationship, which is more than can be said of many filmmakers. In the very first scene of the film which we return to at the end Alma says “Reynolds has made my dreams come true. And I have given him what he desires most in return…every piece of me”. The Guardian‘s Guy Lodge observes that the first half of the film follows a familiar path of “a tortured male creative genius…taking out his art-fuelled frustrations and insecurities on a blameless female victim” but Alma “begins to assert herself in ways that aren’t immediately perceptible”. He describes it as “neither a story of subjugation nor one of empowerment” and that “all traditional notions of one-way control are out the window”. In contrast, in her piece for Bust Zoey Peresman argues that the film is a “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.” Both Reynolds and Alma certainly perform roles of dominance and submission and yet there is an essential imbalance: Alma continues to exist for him. Can she really be the true protagonist of the film if she has no backstory and no interior (or really much exterior) life? I would argue that a female character who exists to provoke depth and complexity in a egotistical man-child of a character fundamentally can’t.

While I walked out of Phantom Thread not really knowing how I felt about the complex dynamic at its heart and critics’ seeming reluctance to engage with the film as a story of abuse I did feel inspired to send Alma a playlist encouraging her to ditch Reynolds, grab a few gowns and get the hell out of there. For my part, there is no greater act of love than making a cup of tea for someone unprompted and Reynolds snapping at Alma interrupting him with a tea tray might be darkly funny but to me it’s truly heartbreaking.

So here it is, fifteen songs to inspire you to butter your toast and drink your Lapsang as loudly as you like for your listening pleasure:

 

 

The Game of Thrones Dudes are Getting a Star Wars Trilogy and I’m Already So Tired

Content warning: rape.

A friend of mine (hi Emma!) is trying a new thing where she tries not to judge something before she’s seen it herself. It’s very admirable in our age of retweeting without reading and knee-jerk reactions and branding people and the content they create as either problematic or pure and I’m trying to reserve judgement too. But blimey, my heart sank like Boba Fett falling into the Sarlacc Pit when Disney announced last night that Game of Thrones’ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are to take the helm of another new Star Wars trilogy.

I think we all know that Game of Thrones is a misogynistic show. We’ve all seen the exposition dumps that take place in brothels where the naked women and velvet curtains act as equally exotic and silent set dressing (everyone jokingly calling it “sexposition” doesn’t make it any less sexist). We remember the justification of a consensual sex scene between Jaime and Cersei in the books transforming into rape on screen. And we remember the sight of Ros’ corpse riddled with arrows, posed like a Renaissance painting, silk dress pulled high to reveal her legs and tight to reveal her breasts. Two arrows are imbedded in her body near her crotch and another sticks out of her chest. That last image continues to disturb me more than anything else in the show; its eroticisation of violence against women is so visceral and so unashamed. We’d seen countless displays of Joffrey’s unrelenting brutality already and yet this was deemed necessary.

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The last straw for me, and I believe for many others, was Ramsay’s rape of Sansa in Season 5. The story is not a total departure from the books but in A Dance with Dragons Sansa’s poor friend Jeyne Poole is Ramsay’s victim. Sansa and Jeyne’s storylines were amalgamated in order to give Sansa a larger role in the season. I can’t talk about the scene specifically as I’ve never seen it. My Twitter timeline was filled with horror, outrage and resignation after the episode first aired and I chose to step away, as did the feminist pop and geek culture website The Mary Sue who explain their decision to stop writing about the show here. Rape isn’t a shortcut to make a character more complex, whether that’s survivor or perpetrator. It’s not necessary, it’s not entertainment, and it’s not comparable to the other violent acts portrayed in the show. Being thrown out of windows, beheaded or incinerated by dragon fire are not fears that most people carry. All women live with the fear of rape and to dismiss the show as pure fantasy is reductive and displays a lack of understanding of the reality we live in, as well as the number of scenes of violence against women we’ve sat through before. Enough.

But I’m not here to lecture. I came crawling back to Game of Thrones at the beginning of Season 6 with a slight feeling of shame after Sansa was reunited with Jon at Winterfell, giving me what I’d been waiting for since I read the books back in 2011. I can’t help but be a sucker for characters actually being happy for a change and the last two seasons of the show have admittedly been far less explicitly misogynistic. But Cersei sitting on the Iron Throne, Sansa holding Winterfell in Jon’s absence and Daenerys barbecuing people doesn’t negate the bullshit I’ve rolled my eyes over at best and felt truly sickened by at worst.

It’s not just that 96% of the directors and writers of Star Wars universe films have been white men (see this excellent breakdown by Maureen Ryan) and that the franchise is looking more and more like a playground for these successful white male fanboys with Rian Johnson also being handed a trilogy of his own. It’s that part of this new era of Star Wars storytelling with its female leads (albeit entirely white British and brunette) is now being handed to creators who have repeatedly chosen to write scenes of misogynistic violence. And I haven’t even mentioned the slavery fan fiction TV show Confederate which Benioff and Weiss are currently working on and Daenerys’ role as a “white saviour”. It’s not that I think Disney want a Star Wars: After Dark trilogy in which the blood will flow and the breasts will bounce HBO style. It’s that I don’t want these men anywhere near this story that I love. I’ll try not to judge before I’ve seen it myself but god almighty, can Disney hire Ava DuVernay or Taika Waititi already?