The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic here.
I have seen Reynolds Woodcock, the character played by Daniel Day-Lewis at the center of “Phantom Thread,” described by other critics as “exacting,” “meticulous,” “rigid” and “insatiable.”
He is all of those things. He is also emotionally abusive.
Reynolds is a fashion designer in 1950s London. His work is for royals and rich people; “Project Runway” this isn’t. During a mini-break at his country home, he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress impressed by, among other things, his hearty breakfast order. He makes her a custom dress. She moves in. That’s where the trouble begins.
Except no, that’s not where the trouble begins. The trouble begins on their first date, when he wipes off her lipstick. “I like to see who I’m talking to,” he says. When he takes her measurements, he notes that she has small breasts, but no worry: “My job is to give you some. If I choose to.” From the very beginning, she is wrong. But it’s not her fault; he just knows better.
For her part, Alma is proud of how she can sustain her relationship with Reynolds, both as model and muse (I believe it is required by law that every piece of writing about “Phantom Thread” must refer to Alma as a muse at least once). “I can stand endlessly,” she tells a visitor. “No one else can stand as long as I can.” The implied dual meaning — stand like a mannequin, stand Reynolds’ temperament and temper tantrums — becomes ominous.
She butters her toast too loudly; she pours tea from such a height that it sounds like a lapsang souchong-steeped pipe has burst. She has bad taste in fabric, Reynolds tells her. She learns, though; it doesn’t take her long to embrace a life of quiet buttering. She tailors herself to fit Reynolds, earning his approval. The first time we see them kiss is after she, at his order, immediately and willingly removes one of his dresses from a drunk client he deems unworthy of wearing his design.
When Alma speaks up, she is shouted down. When she asks for something, she is denied. Of course, Reynolds reminds her, she doesn’t have to stay — but he’s already made her think she’s crazy for ever wanting to leave. And when she does attempt to go, Reynolds is there with just the right “romantic” gesture to win her back. And she does go back.
Movies about emotional abuse usually have the victim suffering in silence. Alma doesn’t. When she does fight back in her own subtly vicious way, though, it’s easy to misread the relationship as simply tumultuous rather than abusive. Alma is strong, sometimes angry and often even happy — but Reynolds’ behavior is still abuse. Alma puts a face on emotional abuse we don’t often see in movies: She proves that one can smile, and smile, and be a victim.