The Women of the House of Woodcock

Male cruelty is not the point of The Phantom Thread

Who’s got the power?

The Phantom Thread, the latest film from the ever reliable genius of Paul Thomas Anderson, opens with the bustling of a typical day in the house of Woodcock, or rather The House of Woodcock, judging by the reverence evinced by many of the women who tremble their way to the top of the stairs to see what Reynolds Woodcock will make for them, or rather how he will make them feel. Woodcock is fussy and intense, as we discover first during his morning grooming and later as he takes his breakfast. Based on Anderson’s oeuvre and his previous collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis, 2007’s There Will Be Blood, I had every expectation that Woodcock would turn out to be a misanthrope of some kind and that much of The Phantom Thread would center on the interplay between his cruelty and abuse of power and the women he claims to love. And indeed, we get our first taste of Woodcock’s waspishness right at the beginning of the film, during this very breakfast, shared by Woodcock, his old so and so, Cyril, who we soon learn is his sister, and a rather perturbed looking woman, Joanna, who feels quite deeply the lack of attention being paid to her by Reynolds this particular morning.

Joanna attempts to start “a scene” in an almost egregiously stereotypical fashion and is cut down in the midst of her theatricality by a dismissive Woodcock who simply doesn’t have time this morning for a confrontation, as he says lightly and softly over and over again to Joanna before deriding the breakfast pastries she offers him as “sludgy” and storming away from the table. In a way, we sympathize with Woodcock because Joanna is blatantly attempting to emotionally blindside him, but Woodcock goes well above the call of duty in swatting her emotional immaturity aside and we know from the jump that Reynolds Woodcock is a cold-hearted bastard who is more than capable of casual emotional cruelty, aided, or at least not hindered terribly by his sister.

There is a world and indeed a world inhabited by real film critics where Woodcock’s absurd, cranky specificity and his reaction to his lover’s failure to meet that specificity could be thought of as, well, as funny. “It is too early in the morning for confrontation,” is delivered with uncomprehending lightness and repeated at length before Reynolds even gets to admonishing Joanna for her desire to serve a pastry or two she thought Reynolds would like (later in the film, he noshes on a pastry suspiciously similar to those he dismisses here as “sludgy”). It’s possible that there’s a world where Reynolds’ cutting wit is . . . funny. This strikes me as false for two reasons. It is entirely outside the world of the film, but I have been in the room when a man has taken it into his head to be dissatisfied with the aesthetic choices of his collaborators and who chose to inflict maximum emotional damage to his suspecting and often helpless interlocutors, in a much less intimate setting than a family breakfast at home, to boot. I want to put this as bluntly as I can: I saw a man emotionally destroy someone who was brave enough to be vulnerable but who had the temerity to be wrong, I’ve even wandered across the bows of such men a time or two in my professional life. I know that kind of emotional terrorism and no matter how absurd the content of Woodcock’s words ( And he reaches some grandiloquent heights in this film, such as “Are you a secret agent? Are you here to kill me? Do you have a gun? Do you have a gun?” or some such nonsense) there was never one millisecond where I found that absurdity funny. I was never tempted to laugh at a single syllable of cruelty that Reynolds Woodcock utters during The Phantom Thread.

The other reason I find that laughing at Woodcock’s words false is much more organically linked the film Anderson actually made. This point is a bit intricate, so bear with me.

After Woodcock has Cyril dispense with Joanna, he takes a trip out to the country. The memory of his cruelty hovers over his every interaction with any human being, though there aren’t many of them before his attention is focused on Alma, a klutzy waitress who catches his eye and then his interest when he forces her to memorize his huge breakfast order, which is not even close to the weirdest thing he asks Alma to do when they are still essentially strangers. Anderson and his actors conjure up an alchemical reaction between the two of them, Alma and Reynolds. Alma never hesitates at anything Reynolds asks of her, which ratchets up the stakes for the surely inevitable time when he will lash out at her. Anderson adds an interesting layer to this emotional dread as well, as the telling of the, er, romance between Alma and Reynolds is frequently recalled in words by an Alma with an iron surety and insight into Woodcocks needs in a retrospective fashion, in a remarkable narrative strategy that is equal parts flashback and contemporaneous storytelling. We are very deep into the movie before we understand who she is talking to and why, but she Alma is so frank with this person about Woodcock’s character it’s as though he were either dead or long out of her life. So early in the film, we dread how Reynolds will treat Alma, knowing however that Alma survives whatever it is that he does to her. Hitchcock famously distinguished between suspense and surprise and Paul Thomas Anderson gives us more than enough information to dread a breakfast scene. Long before it comes, we know the metaphorical suitcase with the bomb in it is under that breakfast table and it is only a matter of time before it suddenly explodes into emotional shrapnel for the unprepared Alma.

After a period of romance and productive collaboration where Alma is occasionally non-plussed and wrong footed, quite frequently the intimate connection between Cyril and Reynolds, but never abused, Alma, is subjected to the breakfast treatment, where no choice that she makes in her self-absorbed normalcy pleases Reynolds, who leaves the breakfast table in a huff over the loudness of her breakfast preparations (in a brilliant bit of sound design, we are, er, treated to Reynold’s subjective experience of the horror of buttering toast too early in the morning). Alma is perturbed until Cyril explains the importance of Reynold’s mornings and it ends curiously: not with Alma upset at Reynolds’ capriciousness, but at her not knowing. “I didn’t know,” Alma says, bewildered. Cyril smiles tightly “Well, now you do.”

Anderson has crafted story of The House of Woodcock as a set of relationships, between Cyril, Alma, and Reynolds, that exist almost solely in relation to Reynolds’ dressmaking. The depth of Alma and Reynolds’ relationship, and the reason that Cyril tolerates Alma at all, comes from Alma’s understanding of the profound importance of Woodcock’s couture. Alma doesn’t wear Reynolds’ work because she loves him as a human being; she loves him as a human being because of his work. Reynolds first begins to grasp how special Alma is because of how ardently she feels connected to his work, even work that she has not worn, to the point where Alma goads Reynolds into storming up to a wealthy woman’s bridal suite after she has disgraced the dress and then retrieving the dress from the unconscious woman herself. Anderson situates The Phantom Thread in opposition to what I call the cult of creativity in the past, this worship of the creativity as an inscrutably mysterious process whose results justify the many many awful things the “creative” men do.

The Phantom Thread manages to achieve a delicate balance between Alma’s ability to weather Woodcock’s worst without positing his irascibility as an indispensable part of his creative life. Cyril, Reynolds totally faithful sister undercuts this corrosive idea in her very existence as the manager who is under no illusions about Reynolds, neither his cruelty nor his creativity, who simply does not tolerate any attempt to emotionally damage her. Indeed, I got the sense that she could be an even greater emotional terrorist than Reynolds if she wanted. She only flashes this briefly and it is firmly and pointedly directed at Reynolds himself. Cyril is never impulsive or thoughtless or out of control, not in the unthinking ways that Reynolds so often is. Anderson also undercuts the cult of creativity around Reynolds by giving Alma her own ferocious convictions about what Reynolds actually needs in order to be his most creative self. This is the other reason why I am baffled at reading The Phantom Thread as a comedy centered on Reynolds’ behavior, one that I feel arises from the film itself, which seems to find Reynolds ridiculous. If we are to laugh, it should be at Reynolds’ expense, at his impotence in his rage, not because of the witty quality of his jerk behavior. I never got the sense that Alma or Cyril defend or enable his indefensible cruelty when pushed out of his comfort zone, something Alma does perpetually to Reynolds throughout the film and not out of any desire to engender his bastard behavior.

What struck me most over the course of The Phantom Thread is that Reynolds Woodcock fades in the telling of his story. He has the least insight into his creativity, his fussiness, or his crabbed flashes of ingratitude, which are weathered and tolerated by Cyril and Alma, who simply know better. It doesn’t feel like an apologia or a defense of Woodcock’s misanthropy, or even a grudging respect for it. Daniel Plainview is a maniacal genius whose eventual success causes him to drop the mask of respectability he has doggedly worn for most of the film. Anderson ends Plainview’s story by having him mock his opponent before murdering him, quite unnecessarily (uh, spoiler alert for a 2007 film). Anderson shows a measure, if not of admiration for Plainview’s competitiveness, at least respect for the discipline governing this evil man. Anderson found his story compelling enough to tell after all (I mean, so did Sinclair Lewis, but I think Anderson is after a different kettle of fish than Lewis was when he wrote Oil!). Reynolds Woodcock does not evince the same degree of respect outside of his dressmaking; his fits of pique are failures and he is punished for them, scourged of them, so that he can return to the activity of his genius.

Reynolds Woodcock asserts that he cannot change and in some ways he is right, but he does change in one, important way: he changes how he understands his place in the pecking order of The House of Woodcock, which is to say that he grasps, by the end, that his dressmaking is not possible without his sister, Cyril, and his lover and eventual wife, Alma punishing his weakness.

I would happily discuss the details further, but come on, you gotta see the movie, I’m not gonna give everything away.

This isn’t exactly a review of The Phantom Thread, but it would be churlish of me not to lavish some praise on the actors involved. Daniel Day Lewis plays Woodcock without many shades, a man of certainty who is quite often wrong-footed. Day Lewis gives his scene partners a presence to play off of, but it’s a generosity of presence where he offers rich texture but never towers over his partners or steals a scene (there are no milkshakes being drunk here). Woodcock’s sister Cyril is played with devastating aplomb by Leslie Manville, whose first close up immediately struck me as an homage to Hitchcock. Manville has glorious a face for suspense, a Sphinx like visage that never gives anything away but which nevertheless contains multitudes of quiet signals to contemplate. Vicky Krieps is astonishingly sure as the supple Alma, who can be often confused and non-plussed in the small things, but whose will is iron and absolute in the essentials of what Woodcock needs to be the center of The House of Woodcock. The serene surety of her feelings about what Reynolds needs are a major emotional anchor throughout the film and it’s eccentric semi-flashback narrative structure.

Paul Thomas Anderson has given us a number of contests of wills in his films over the years, with varying degrees of violence to go with those contests. I think especially of Punch Drunk Love, There Will be Blood, and The Master and The Phantom Thread slots itself at home in those dissections of power and love and fucked up relationships. The difference this time is that PTA doesn’t offer up a cynical portrait of a man enabled or even matched for will to power by the women around him. Instead, we watch a man who comes to understand that his greatness is despite his personal shittiness and that he is not enabled in his shittiness by the women around him, but despite it. It’s a subtle analysis of power and its ebbs and flows, one that doesn’t valorize the jackass man at the center of it, indeed it minimizes him in the presence of these indomitable women who are far more responsible for his genius than the world would ever normally give them credit. The Phantom Thread is a rich theatrical experience and y’all should definitely experience it that way if you can.

Just don’t call it a comedy.

Theatre. Sports. Econ. Cocktails. General geekery. The usual.