“Phantom Thread:” The Fetishization of Wealth

Phantom Thread has garnered a litany of awards and nominations in the time it has been out, and, perhaps, that’s enough of a reason to see it. It certainly is a richly crafted movie, but you may leave the theater troubled and perplexed. Daniel Day-Lewis’ character, Reynolds Woodcock, plays the lead in what turns out to be a part-Cinderella, part-horror story mashup. Woodcock, a renowned dressmaker, meets Alma Elson (played by Vicky Krieps) at a cafe and asks her to dinner. Alma moves in with him as his new model and muse, falls in love with him, and then marries him. But, for me, it has broken one of the most important taboos of film: credulity. Woodcock’s proposal to Alma is motivated by a sudden bout of illness. Alma poisoned him so he’d be weak and vulnerable and it paid massive dividends. Reynolds Woodcock’s forgiveness of Alma Elson’s poisoning stretches the mind. There’s no predictable and expected implosion of the relationship by Alma’s confession. Woodcock expresses no disbelief that the woman he loves could do this. There’s an immediate acceptance that this toxic relationship is an acceptable middle ground for Alma and Reynolds.

This is the part which broke my willingness to go along with the story, and I wasn’t the only one. Several in the audience were left uncomfortable with this resolution. Without a doubt, this is a love story with no right to exist. Alma wants a man who can be vulnerable and intimate with her. Reynolds wishes to pursue his craft free of the minutiae and distractions which disrupt his work. These people are incapable of having a healthy and mutually satisfying romantic relationship because their personalities obstruct the other from getting the support they want.

A curious and omnipresent aspect of Phantom Thread is the display of wealth. Reynolds caters almost exclusively to the British aristocracy. Reynolds’ houses, his dresses, the company he keeps — all laden with opulence and decadence. Woodcock makes a dress for a princess’ wedding. The couple attends formal upper-class dinner parties. An elegant, but dainty score plays throughout the movie. This opulence and elegance make the drought of genuine and authentic emotion in the movie even more apparent.

The extravagance fleshes out the world the characters find themselves in, but there is no reflection or critique of it. There’s hardly a word about it. For Alma, who starts out the film not as a model, but as a waitress, such an omission is striking. There’s also a focus on the dress making the woman beautiful and not the other way around. Beauty is something a woman has to buy. Near the beginning of the movie, and at the start of Alma’s relationship with Woodcock, Alma says: “I never really liked myself. I thought my shoulders were too wide, my neck was skinny like a bird, that I had no breasts. I felt my hips were larger than needed and my arms strong…. But in his work, I have become perfect. I feel just right” (Phantom Thread). This sentiment does not express a confidence bolstered by lavishness and wealth, but rather, a confidence rooted in it.

Phantom Thread seems to portray its characters drowning in a world of much excess and little honesty. And even less concern for how that wealth affects them.

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