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Major Spoilers for Phantom Thread ahead.
Throughout most of watching Phantom Thread, I oscillated between boredom, vague appreciation for craft, and rage. Throughout the early goings of the film, it’s a vapid but beautiful movie about sexism and the fashion industry, set in the 1950s in the dress house of one Reynolds Woodcock, a total asshole who makes gorgeous designs for rich white ladies. But much later on, Phantom Thread takes a turn, getting a little Arsenic and Old Lace, almost literally.
It’s all frills and toxic masculinity until a late movie troll twist that—while I can’t get fully onboard with—I respect for its sheer audacity.
The filmmakers don’t make this easy to watch, at least for anyone who has ever had a horrible boss. Reynolds treats everyone in his life with vague disdain. He treats women (aside from his sister) like objects. The plot concerns his falling in love with a woman—Alma—who doesn’t always swallow his bullshit. He complains about the way she makes food. He tells her she has no breasts. He berates her for any and every imaginable detail of her life, including the way she plays card games, and its frankly infuriating. But of course, she falls in love with him and moves in.
There’s plenty of good old fetishizing rich white people in period costumes, which is basically to be expected, but tiresome. Of course, the production design and acting are incredible, which, I think is where a lot of the praise for the movie came from. I was not into it, until it got interesting.
Now here’s where I’m going to really, really spoil it.
Alma gets so fed up with Reynolds that she poisons him—badly—to knock him down a peg. She then plays nursemaid in order to gain his affection back.
He falls in love with her again and stops being quite as much of an asshole for awhile. Then, he starts treating her like dirt again, she harvests poisonous mushrooms a second time and—very late in the movie, she reveals that she is actively poisoning him, to gain some power over him. He is super into the idea, and they newspaper the bathroom floor so his extremely messy illness is easier to deal with. This is all treated with the care and attention of a kink scene, but—and here’s my biggest problem with the movie—until now, she was doing so without his consent. I’m not here to kinkshame or moralize. From this point on, Alma has Reynolds’ enthusiastic consent to poison him and take care of him, but my beef comes from the fact that she was doing this without his knowledge at first. Healthy relationships rely on communication and consent, the fact that theirs was previously anything but feels like the movie passing a sort of judgment on kink in general that I was taken aback by.
But, the more I think about it, the more I respect the artistic choice—if not the way it goes down—to troll the living hell out of the audience. Fooling people into watching the pretty dress movie, then setting up a poisoning kink where the main character really likes literally vomiting and shitting himself half to death—that’s next level.
The examination of a power dynamic is interesting here. Reynolds is such a petty tyrant, so seemingly incapable of treating women with any kind of respect, that his eventual buy-in to his poisoning and helplessness makes a certain kind of sense. It’s tied into some implied incest and some other subtle psychosexual material, and it contrasts beautifully with the repressed, frilly world of high fashion in the 50s.
The troll twist here is closely related to the Never Trust a Trailer TV Trope, which is pretty self explanatory. You can’t always take media at face value—look at some of the infamous examples in cinema, like Psycho, which folks thought was going to be about a badass, bank-robbing Janet Leigh (and, instead, was about a psychotic killer in an old motel). Metal Gear Solid 2 is a fun example from gaming, with beloved protagonist Snake switching out for Raiden early on in the game. Gone Home even fits in here, since folks expected to be a ghost story—but it was instead a heartwarming tale of very queer 90s love.
I’d probably not call Gone Home a troll, more a pleasant twist on expectations. I can’t say what Phantom Thread is doing is pleasant (again! Consent!) but damn if it didn’t make me laugh at the very elaborate setup and eventual bait-and-switch. I fully respect the troll. The movie so uncritically fellates fashion industry tropes and the ways in which women are/were treated so disposably that I was sort of glad that it pulled the rug up from under the audience.
Ok readers, if you’ve gotten this far, is there a major troll in a piece of media that helped you to enjoy—or at least, respect—it?