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The Twisted Fascination of ‘Phantom Thread’: If This Isn’t Toxic Masculinity, What Is?

Readers often push back against something I’ve written, and I welcome the debate. If I don’t answer back, that’s because I feel like I’ve already had my say. (If you dive in to defend a point you’ve made in a movie review, it’s likely to sound…defensive.) So let me say right up front that I want to talk about Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” and what I think it’s really about — not just because a lot of people have disagreed with me on the point, but because “Phantom Thread,” elegant and chilly and addictive (I’ve seen it twice and could go a third time), is a movie of such plush and twisted fascination.

Anderson is regarded by his fan base as an artistic colossus, though I’d argue he’s now evolved into something of a cult auteur. Long ago, I was in the cult, too — in 1997 and ’98, I would watch “Boogie Nights” once or twice a month like clockwork. But then “There Will Be Blood” came out (exactly 10 years ago), and I found it mystifying that Anderson would want to make a two-hour-and-38-minute movie about a greedy violent sociopath who spends the film’s entire running time not changing (excuse me, that isn’t quite accurate; he starts off as as rapacious pirate autocrat and then gets worse and worse and worse and worse). I understood the praise heaped upon the dark-side spectacle of it all, but I couldn’t sign on as a true believer. Yes, the film was “brilliant,” but it seemed like “The Shining” remade as a coldly mesmerizing art stunt.

Coming after “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” “Phantom Thread” is the third film Anderson has made that centers on a domineering patriarchal ego-stoked power figure who squeezes the juice out of the person closest to him. In this case, there is, by the end, a reckoning, a hint of a softening, maybe a redemption. Nevertheless, Daniel Day-Lewis’s 1950s British fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock is basically a suave and seductive monomaniacal control freak who invites Alma (Vicky Krieps), the waitress he meets at an inn in the British countryside, to become his mistress and muse, and then proceeds to treat her like his possession.

Reynolds, in Day-Lewis’ performance, has a smiling warmth about him, but when pushed he will bite your head off. He establishes his sternly obsessive command early on and spends more or less the entire film acting it out. The relationship between Reynolds and Alma is lit by a romantic spark, but once the two sit down to breakfast, and Reynolds lets it be known that he finds the simple act of Alma buttering her toast to be an obscene imposition, or when she dares to banter back with him, like something out of a screwball comedy, and he shouts “Enough!” (because he can’t deal with relinquishing his on-top position even in light conversation), we see his true colors: He’s not a partner — he’s a courtly alpha artist-brute who wants things his way or no way at all. This kind of relationship would have looked oppressive before there was even a word called “feminism.” Today, it looks like what it is: a case of toxic masculinity.

And yet, I’ve had countless readers question my use of that phrase in connection with “Phantom Thread,” as if I were somehow imposing a rigid, reductive agenda on the wondrous and supple humanity of Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmmaking.

What’s strange, to me, about the pushback is that we’re now smack in the middle of an incalculably large behavioral-cultural earthquake: the tectonic shift in the way that we view — and combat — sexual harassment, and all that that issue suggests, going forward, about how men create oppressive environments in ways that are both scandalous and subtle. The whole world has this seismic topic on the brain. Yet P.T. Anderson has made a movie about a fashion-world magnate who draws a lovely and radiant young woman into his orbit and proceeds to treat her like a doll in a gilded birdcage, and somehow, because he’s played by Daniel Day-Lewis, this is all just viewed as part of his cosmic sympathetic artistic mojo.

Part of the power of “Phantom Thread” is that Reynolds Woodcock, in his own mind, has good reasons for acting the way he does. He’s a fanatical craftsman-artist whose luxe workaholic fervor feeds a kind of obsession, as if he were in the business of clothing goddesses. (He’s so high and mighty about his designs that he can’t even stand the word “chic.”) His life runs like a cuckoo clock, and nothing — nothing! — can stand in the way. And since there’s an echo of the Pygmalion story in his relationship with Alma (she’s his possession, but also his ultimate work of art, who comes to life in a way that he doesn’t expect), to use a phrase like “toxic masculinity” sounds like I’m denying the aesthetic and spiritual dimensions of their relationship.

But if there’s anything that the last three months have shown us, it’s that the whole way that toxic masculinity works — not just for the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, which is to say the brutes and the criminals, but for less visible transgressors — is that it can be part of a system, a way of thinking, that’s entangled with “normal” ways of interacting, and even with beauty and aesthetics.

Some of the people who’ve been knocked off their pedestals, like Charlie Rose or John Lasseter or Garrison Keillor, have been men who exercised an obscene feeling of license within a self-created world of serious endeavor. They felt entitled to do what they did — just like Reynolds Woodcock. This issue, at the heart of our culture right now, is a fundamental issue of how human beings treat other human beings. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds with sexy light charm, but “Phantom Thread” remains the study of a man who treats the woman he falls in love with in a way that no woman — no person — should ever be treated. It’s not just about art, either; it’s about the way he likes his asparagus cooked. It’s about the whole system of posh control he’s hooked up to. He wants to rule, not share; he wants to dictate, not open himself to her whims; he wants to live inside the playground that is the domain of his male imagination.

I met Paul Thomas Anderson just once, at the world premiere party for “Boogie Nights,” and a sweetness came off him that was undeniable. Though you can’t pretend to know someone famous you’ve seen mostly from a distance, Anderson has always struck me as the soul of decency. He speaks with great tenderness about his marriage (to Maya Rudolph) and his four children, so I’m going to make a daring leap and assume that he’s not very much like the characters he depicts — the rapacious Daniel Plainview, the screw-loose guru Lancaster Dodd, or the oh-so-dapper and courtly emotional fascist Reynolds Woodcock. I’m guessing that Anderson sees these characters in some part of his own id, and that making these movies is almost a rite of exorcism for him. Maybe he feels like he makes films about male monsters as a way of warding off any temptation to become one.

I think that’s healthy. But it also means that these characters, while they may express something essential about him, are also didactic projections. Reynolds Woodcock is the most compelling of them, but by the end of “Phantom Thread,” when he’s colluding in the lesson he has to learn, subjecting his own toxic masculinity to a toxic cure, it’s both a good joke and a little too PC easy-glib. Then again, at least — at last — he can see what he is. “Phantom Thread” is a compelling movie, but I wonder if the cult of Paul Thomas Anderson is so enamored of the master that they now adore his films without taking in what he’s actually portraying.

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