CultureCinema A Postcolonial Review Of Phantom Thread: Undressing Male Resentment

A Postcolonial Review Of Phantom Thread: Undressing Male Resentment

The film Phantom Thread is about eating. How white men make dresses that consume women, men and female labour.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread scored a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes. Reviewers from The New Yorker to Rolling Stone have found the cold seduction and “claustrophobic elegance” of Phantom Thread charming and satisfying. The film has earned 6 Oscar nominations and won the award for Best Costume Design.

Here is my contrarian report.

Reynolds Woodcock, played to perfection by Daniel Day-Lewis, is loosely based on acclaimed couturier, Charles James (1906-1978) who went on to influence Christian Dior.

But Phantom Thread is actually about eating: dresses that consume women, men and female labour. It’s about women eating with supreme restraint to avoid crippling the male genius. It’s not just the female lead Alma (Vicky Kreips), who has internalised ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach‘ to bizarre lengths. Woodcock picks his muses based on how they feed him (his ego).

Alma attempts to speak up sometimes (yay!) against Woodcock’s bullying, but she loves him too much to leave him (and not kill him). His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) is her brother’s dogged keeper and coddler. He is the bread-winner after all.

The film left me cold. Uninvested. Squirming in my seat for it to be over after 90 minutes. Bollywood may have permanently ruined me for Oscar calibre films. But that’s my bad: I should have the same non-expectations of Hollywood.

The one time I found myself riveted was when poisonous mushrooms show up in the kitchen. “Thank god, now something interesting will happen”, I remember thinking to myself. I wanted a Medea or Procne-style revenge — cooking children to feed ravenous fathers. Is it possible to bake or cook haute couture into food? One can only hope. That’s what I wanted to do to Reynolds Woodcock’s dresses.

Charles James. Image credit: Rare Vintage

The film sucks your reserves of empathy dry. There’s no one to root for—maybe Alma, for a few seconds. But if there’s ever a film that made me root for the protagonist’s failure, this may be it.

Random crotch angles and claustrophobic car shots aim for occasional style elements. The cinematic detail of understairs and doors is impressive. Haunting details about tucking in mementoes or notes into clothes’ lining — enough to titillate but too extra to go anywhere. Maybe that is the genius of the film — quilting layers to Woodcock’s psyche. I don’t get it. I don’t need the frills to understand the making of a terrible person.

You hear pencils and pens scrape paper, silverware scratch china. You’re meant to put yourself in Reynolds Woodcock’s magenta socks when this sensory overload rains down on you.

Hard pass.

It’s the 1950s in Britain. No people of colour exist in this world. Our ancestors just happened to fight for their British overlords in their wars thousands of miles away (only a million Indian troops served in World War I and over 2.5 million in World War II). No biggie.

Why would they be found in the streets of London and drawing rooms in the 1950s?  Oh, but Asian elephants decorated in Indian brocade? Those can be found in British galas and new-year eve carnivals. A classic case of postcolonial amnesia.

Reynolds Woodcock designs for white European royalty. Period. Why would he bother with Indian royalty that frequented England or Europe? 

Also Read: Sabyasachi Mukherjee And The Practice Of Shaming Women For ‘Culture’

Photograph of Sita Devi by Cecil Beaton, 1937.
Image credit: Mapin Publishing

Maharani Indira Devi of Jaipur, mother to Gayatri Devi, didn’t patronize the House of Wood and Cock. She only bought a 100 pairs of Salvatore Ferragamo diamond-encrusted shoes. If a brown woman ever did don a Woodcock dress, wouldn’t Alma the house enforcer strip her of it?

Rani Sita Devi of Kapurthala was dubbed ‘Secular Goddess’ by Vogue magazine (which featured her at the age of 19). In fact, Sita Devi managed to inspire Elsa Schiaparelli, famed Italian designer — Coco Chanel’s archrival, and Charles James’ contemporary. Schiaparelli’s entire 1935 collection featured sari-robes thanks to some desi influence.

Jagjit Singh, Maharaja of Kapurthala, just happened to be a big Loius Vitton client. None of these made Woodcock’s elite clientele either. That’s really OK. It’s not as if these feudal maharajas and maharanis didn’t collaborate with their white colonial masters to exploit Indian farmers.

But it does matter that Indian cotton, chintz, calicoes, muslins and silks, in fact, the spine of Britain’s widening imperialism, changed the geography and demography of the world. Or that majority of English fashion in the previous centuries rested on the backs of Asian farmers.

Thanks to the big war, cheap supplies of artificial German blue dye dried up. Guess who the British came to rely upon? famine-struck Champaran farmers in Bihar who were then forced to produce indigo. The Champaran which was to become a certain test run for the non-violent satyagraha in 1917.

Churchill would go on to find Gandhi’s signature nakedness offensive. Though Gandhi wasn’t the Mahatma as yet, he intuited the textile stress that would crack the tensile strength of British supremacy. Boycotting the imperial phantom thread would go on to unravel the empire, 30 years later.

Let’s not forget scrapped looms and equipment from decommissioned British mills that were shipped off and reinstalled in India in the 1930s. But why would European designers deign to clothe rich brown people, right? Oh, but we know now that some did. But why would Hollywood care about those losers?

But don’t worry, there’s a ton of white female representation in this film though. The film gets that historical detail right. More women were in the workplace during and after the Second World War. Employable men were forced to make grumpy peace with working alongside them and reforming their attitudes.

In the film, it takes many seamstresses, waiting-women, dead mothers, cooks, nannies, nurses, secretaries, managers, landladies, clients and muses to prop up one sagging male ego in crisis. They are the real phantoms of that Woodcock thread.

Indian cotton, chintz, calicoes, muslins and silks – the spine of Britain’s widening imperialism changed the geography of the world.

So does the film miss public spaces that have now been taken over by women and people of colour? Maybe. The film is set firmly indoors. The only time we’re taken outside – in cars, halls, restaurants or hotel rooms. Just once Alma chooses to go mountain hiking in the snow, but that’s not too important to the plot. Twice she goes searching for mushrooms in the garden — that is important.

The film is escapist white male fantasy and fetish. It time-travels to a period of imagined male fragility — the post-war world of men inundated by working women or entitled clients not worthy of the wares designed for them.

The famous House of Woodcock gowns are passable with some antique lace and pearls thrown in. A lot of jewel-toned taffetas and velvet. The dresses are just as much a character in the film as their creator — they certainly get more respect than the women in the film.

Alma is a muse to her toxic lover who cannot seem to drape bosoms or bellies right. But Alma is perhaps the most charming strand of the film. Is she Jewish or not? That hem detail exists only to layer in the restless resentment of Woodcock’s craft. Alma is part-narrator and part seam-and-string-puller. Vicky Kreips’ mobile face is perfectly needy, her soft voice just the right side of spiteful.

Watch Phantom Thread. If only for the conversation you’ll later have about its lush claustrophobia and clutching femininity — all to gild white masculine performativity.

Hollywood does this to great critical acclaim — it often rewards films centring white masculinity in crisis. Not that Bollywood lags far behind. Just imagine designer misogynists who design for desi women.

A film on Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s trauma that Indian women inflicted on him by not knowing how to tie a sari? Philistines! Varun Dhawan playing Prabal Gurung who fat-shamed a pregnant employee? I can already imagine Karan Johar directing that.

Also Read: Living Like ‘The Danish Girl’ In Today’s India: A Trans Woman’s Account

Featured Image Credit: The New York Times

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