“Fuck Off to Back Where You Came From”: Notes on The Phantom Thread

By Sophie Lewis

I’ve never cared about Daniel Day-Lewis particularly, and until today I didn’t know who PT Anderson is (who is she? was my awestruck thought as the credits rolled – in my head, I think I saw PJ Harvey). Anyway, I went to see The Phantom Thread the other day by accident, complying with a friend. As we walked into the screening, I vaguely remembered the trailer for it, the seemingly unironic film about A Dressmaker and His Muse, and felt certain it was going to offend or bore me half to death. In the event, I loved it, cackling and gasping with glee and excitement through the whole thing. Confusingly, though, the fans I have now looked up on Twitter appear to be talking about precisely the film I was expecting to see, but didn’t. Reviewers are discussing without irony ‘the agony and euphoria of creation’, a love story for a character ruled by aesthetics’, a ‘furious fusion of Art and Love’ with a quirky plot. This guy doesn’t think a ‘commercial audience’ could appreciate the funniness of the movie (for his information, the packed theater in Philly was hooting with laughter). Everyone’s going wow, a perfect movie, wow, wow and I feel like I’m losing my mind, because no one’s talking about the grotesquerie of mutual conjugal violence at the core of the film and its meta-violent function in masking the violence of class.

Also: some of the people whose film criticism I admire the most absolutely hated The Phantom Thread. Johanna Isaacson argued “the film is lost in the fantasy of the tortured ‘genius’, and this parallels Anderson’s retreat into self-congratulation for his perfection of formal ‘quality’ over risk …. The light satire of the central character is a transparent disavowal of the film’s formal classism.” Laura Jaramillo complained that the film “makes fashion about the experience of one male narcissist rather than that of the women who wear it and sew it.”

The latter perspectives, in their wisdom, would have colored my experience dramatically. Oblivious to them, I read The Phantom Thread as a nihilist critique, a hilarious noir about the loathsomeness of the bourgeoisie, the sociopathy of ‘taste,’ the gruesomeness of white femininity, the horror of heterosexuality, and the violence of class and gender.

The Phantom Thread is a morbid depiction of social reproduction, where the gender division of labor appears as a toxic metabolism or circuit of necrotic value. The brutal poison of reification flows forth from Reynolds, attacking Alma’s body, and returns back again in the form of a deadly mushroom, penetrating Reynolds. This is, surely, the core thought of the movie and its most devastating: that the thrill of interpersonal love is only possible within coupled heterosexuality if the violence emanating from each party can be balanced so as to enable respect subtended by exclusion (a joint future as wedded bourgeois subjects, exploiting unwed feminized laborers). The masculine gentleman ‘artist’ appropriates the craft of proletarian women like his mother (sewing) and turns it into a private source of immense surplus-value in the production of aristocratic white femininity. This is a regime of value centrally predicated on the normative devaluation of most women: be they lower-class, ‘unladylike,’ fat, not fat enough, old, queer, unpretty, migrant, non-white or otherwise monstrous. This is my time, says Reynolds. Alma can opt to be destroyed by it (her cry of despair: what am I doing here, in your time?) but instead succeeds at metabolizing it: stealing the time of others, lower down on the pecking order than herself, in turn; serving up her own poison tea. Women don’t have to be anti-productivity and anti-work, you see; in the proper dosage, their ministrations – darling, ‘slow down’! – can serve a positive, immune function for any business.

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Capitalist heteropatriarchy is a joint enterprise; it parasites upon co-operation and portraying this (i.e. people-at-work movies) often makes for good cinema. I can’t think of a scene whose ensemble magic didn’t electrify me, and, as Patrick Harrison has remarked, this might be because “this movie is not at all Daniel Day-Lewis’s movie, but, for once a genuine collaboration with his co-stars and the director.” Each side of the triad (brother-sister, sister-sister-in-law, husband-wife) so vividly contained both solidarity and devastation, like a perfectly balanced cog within a much bigger machine designed to create minimum (dis)satisfaction, scarcity and distrust ad infinitum.

Call it a ‘love story’ if you like, but say what you mean. From the predatory sniffing and negging of waitress Alma by respectable Cyril (the sister) on the measuring block, to Alma’s supposedly chivalric stripping of the drunk millionairess for the sake of her genteel beloved (every bit the pompous anti-feminist comprador: “she can no longer behave this way and be dressed by the House of Woodcock”), the film drove home that what ‘romance’ often really is is a series of atrocities people perpetrate on one another in the name of love and art, for the sake of class power. The beautiful orchestral sound washing over everything was one of the clearest signs to me that dissonance and horror was in play: this, it said to me, is the extent to which we butcher our lives in the service of work, or in our individual attempts to escape it. This, this mockery, is the only thing we know how to desire.

Perhaps the option of this reading also depends on whether you understood the dresses to be good or not (which I didn’t); and maybe more generally whether you believe in ‘the genius of creation’ and Art in the first place (impossible, i.m.o., to take those concepts seriously in the capitalist context). Just like the ‘perfect’ cinema that people seem to think Anderson ‘creates’, a fancy gown is the work of many. Whose fingers are more likely to be afflicted by the phenomenon of overwork that is the eponymous phantom thread – the seamstresses, who work with needle and yarn from dawn to dusk, or the master of the house, whose main implements are pencil, scissors and pins? Anderson may well be discussing himself by way of a more successful ‘light satire’ of the ‘tortured artist’ shibboleth than Darren Aronofsky managed to in discussing himself via the abominable mother! (2017) – but I don’t actually need to know what Anderson’s intention was. The fact is that, like the society in which it exists as value, the ‘50s couture featured in The Phantom Thread (I don’t just mean the pieces Mr Woodcock himself feels aren’t up to snuff; I mean that first dress) was ugly as fuck.

That Cinderella, somewhat relatably, turns into an Ugly Stepsister when she marries the prince is a little discussed fact. Rather than inspiration to write uncritical rave reviews about Art and Beauty, I decided that what the film was inciting was identification with the proletarian German-Jewish refugee Alma, with her ambivalence towards the real pleasures of phony bourgeois ‘art’, her strength, her refusal of her own abuse, her kinky desire to possess her lover, and her purposeful feeding of him his least favorite food (mushrooms with ‘too much’ butter). The weapons of the weak aren’t always communist. In this economy, are not more and more of us in the position of being the foreign wannabe wifey/waifu, elbowing each other out of the way in our scramble for structural (e.g. visa) advantages, deploying all our wiles to precipitate a work “slowdown” in the girlfriend relation, and opportunistically making use of métis knowledges and indigenous witch might have passed to us in a little kitchen-book?

Yet, every bit as much as the two other (Lesley Manville, DD-L) exquisitely-acted people in the triad, Alma (Vicky Krieps) is both affectingly human and structurally diabolical. I’m talking about what she does to other women, but admittedly it is easily occluded by the unforgettable character of what she does in order to become the new Mrs. Reynolds (which I don’t, unlike some reviewers, have a moral problem with, exactly). The first time she puts ground-up poison fungi in his tea, using a tool of his trade (a thimble) no less, it certainly was a non-consensual violation, not BDSM, at least to begin with: there is a chance he then shields her from the doctor knowingly as part of giving himself to her in his sickbed to have and to save. Either way, I bought fully in to the surge of freedom and consummation we feel around the kitchen table the second time, when Reynolds gazes at her for what feels like 5 uninterrupted minutes, goosebumps rising, then deliberately forks up a morsel of mushroom omelette and swallows, having realized what’s happening and consented to it. This was such a powerful encapsulation of the Janus-facedness of life’s work – it’s twin valences, simultaneously health-giving and toxic – and the tendency we have to turn our love into rage on account of the immense challenges we encounter (as organically work-hating subjects) in refusing it. Revolution is too difficult, so this is what resistance looks like: You almost kill me, husband, yet keep me alive. Thus I, using my own means of production, my cooking and my medicine, will almost kill you, yet keep you alive.

I do not mean to suggest that the image of sexuality advanced here is resistant or subversive; on the contrary, there is only a kind of formal subversion in the ghoulish nihilism with which Phantom Thread diagrams what a heterosexual marriage is: the joke being that, usually, the two parties do not consent to the brutality inscribed in their circular transaction, whereas here, they consciously and joyously embrace it. I couldn’t stop laughing: equality of the sexes – figured by the pseudo-aristocratic creative and what The Guardian calls the ‘lowly serving maid’ – is achieved in the end via entrepreneurship.

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In short, this might be one the most pessimistic films on the subject of heterosexual marriage I’ve seen since Bitter Moon. The gothic, accursed, fairy texture of the whole thing is a metaphor for the morbidity of capitalist social reproduction right from the beginning: the ‘hook’ is Reynolds explaining to Alma that his ancestor’s wedding-dress was difficult to make because women, superstitiously, refuse to touch wedding-dresses, but luckily in the end his sister helped him. So… did your sister ever marry? asks Alma. No, responds Reynolds quickly. Later we realise with a sickening wrench that it was effectively him the sister married. In wage society, a.k.a. the deathless goblin kingdom, doesn’t every girl end up marrying, slash becoming, the boss?

Alma’s mission to get Reynolds to marry her – and her unpaid labor in his high-end shop – clearly constitutes a form of class treachery vis-à-vis the working-class women employed there (the long line of people we see filing up the stairs at the very opening of the movie). Although her power struggle with him is ultimately ‘victorious’, if you can call it that, along the way she condemns them – the women – to backbreaking overtime. But it’s OK, you see, because Reynolds has woven a little amulet, “NEVER CURSED”, into the wedding dress upon whose ugly skirts they are all throwing their lives away. They will find husbands after all, hurray! From the point of view of the massive dickhead bachelor played by Daniel Day-Lewis, the drama is undoubtedly about the alternative ‘beauty’ of this ‘mannequin that talks back’, as Anderson himself puts it. There’s immense Pygmalion-esque self-congratulation in the appreciation of this truculent, unlikely figure, a little slouchy and a little tripping over her feet, who generally dislikes at least some of the gowns produced and pinned onto her by the House of Woodcock.

How very right she is, though, when she yells, right in the middle of the film and prior to storming out and preparing the poison for his eggs, that the whole benighted “game” her lover is playing with his “dresses” and his “rules” and his “yes sir, no madam” is … it’s so … words fail her … “nyuh, ppfff, vuhhhh, ughh!”

“Why don’t you just fuck off to back where you came from” is Mr. Reynolds Woodcock’s reply. Well, this is a very good question, or at least, one that mobs of fascists and their liberal-centrist allies are more or less continuously voicing in this, our xenophobic moment. What kind of fiancé asks such a question? The not-untypical fiancé, alas, is the probable answer. We’ve already noted – and Anderson’s confirmed – that Alma is a refugee from the Holocaust. But is that, in the liberal imagination, perhaps the one situation with unassailable credentials, the one time when it is truly reprehensible to ask of someone Why don’t you just fuck off to back where you came from, I wonder? Either way, I’d like to suggest we cultivate the habit that would entail us shifting our eyes off the quirky bootstrap narrative that is the survival of Alma in The Phantom Thread.

Shifting our gaze from the ‘love story’ so many reviewers swallowed whole, there is nothing uncontemporary about the lock-in and sweatshop conditions represented by Anderson in connection with haute couture. In the ‘emergency’ scene where dozens of seamstresses are made to work through the night repairing the gown, destined for a Belgian princess, which their demon boss has accidentally ripped, am I crazy to hear an echo of the Jewish women incarcerated in Auschwitz, who labored as slaves to make exquisite gowns for Nazi ladies? As the Jewish striking shirtwaist factory laborers said to their bosses in 1909: Why don’t you just fuck off, indeed.

With thanks to Patrick Harrison (@iycrtylph) and Vicky Osterweil.

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