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The Year of the Male Apology in Film

Mother!, The Square, and Phantom Thread all show the cost of excusing Great Men. But they could also do more to humanize their women.

Mother!, The Square, and Phantom Thread all show the cost of excusing Great Men. But they could also do more to humanize their women.
Progress?
Paramount Pictures, Focus Features, and TriArt Film

This post includes spoilers for Mother!, The Square, and Phantom Thread.

As the #MeToo movement continues to draw back the curtain on the rampant abuse of power in Hollywood, it’s impossible not to wonder if men in the entertainment industry really do understand how toxic male entitlement can become. Other than the spectacle of Matt Damon regularly inserting his foot in his mouth, we can’t really know for sure if the post-Weinstein moment is engendering the kind of widespread introspection necessary to change how business is done. But there does seem to be a recognition, among several male filmmakers at least, that the excuses that Hollywood has long used to justify artistic narcissism and misogynistic exploitation are no longer adequate.

The apologies in Mother!, The Square, and Phantom Thread are primarily directed at wives or sexual partners, not female collaborators. (Though in some cases, they’re often one and the same.) And all three films were made well before the Weinstein revelations, of course. But they still feel acutely relevant to our cultural moment for so thoroughly dissecting the difficulties of being around Great Men, especially when their Greatness is obsequiously insisted on by everyone around them. It’s significant, too, that those films are, to varying degrees, contenders this award season—meaning that their observations are finding sympathetic viewers within Hollywood. And yet, as valuable as these critiques of male self-involvement are, there’s something profoundly uncomfortable about watching men repeatedly mistreat the women around them—even when a film is arguing against the very practice—because of the ways that these films simultaneously traffic, if not revel, in female suffering.

Mother! exemplifies this year of well-intentioned but not-quite-convincing male apologies in film. Centering on a young, domestic-minded woman (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who is slowly tortured by the vain whims of the older poet who is her husband (Javier Bardem), writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s horror flick attracted much theorizing upon its release this fall about what, exactly, it was: A biblical allegory? An environmental cautionary tale? But Mother! is arguably most compelling on its surface level, as a study of how Bardem’s unnamed literary superstar takes advantage of his wife’s reluctant accommodations. The poet, who in the credits is only named Him, welcomes careless and violent strangers into the home that Lawrence’s housewife, who the credits identify only as Mother, is singlehandedly renovating. He’d rather bask in the warmth of his fans’ adorations, it turns out, than consider his wife’s need for privacy and calm.
In other words, his creativity not only takes precedence over hers, but he allows the worship of his work to destroy hers. When she later gives birth to their son, the poet sacrifices the lives of his wife and his child to the altar of his fame. He’d rather have the adulation of millions than the love of his family. And why wouldn’t he? As soon as the poet’s done with Lawrence’s character, he’s got another nubile look-alike in his bed.

More than half of Mother!’s runtime is shot in close-ups of Lawrence’s face. Aronofsky’s camera is obsessed with documenting every instance of her anguish and confusion, but fails to capture any semblance of an inner life. Through fantastical exaggeration, Aronofsky explores the many ways that a Great Man can use up the woman by his side. That’s halfway satisfying as a criticism of toxic masculinity and the way we sometimes give artists special dispensation for their genius, but the woman at the center of the film—i.e., the main character—might as well be a fly trapped in a burning matchbox for all the depth she’s given. You feel bad for the fly, but, you know, it’s still just a fly. The film’s mea culpa doesn’t quite land because it’s more interested in escalating her injuries than in treating her like a person with her own humanity. Mother! chides the poet for disregarding her individuality, but ultimately it does the same thing.

Currently shortlisted for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund’s The Square is even more eager to expose its Great Man, the renowned museum curator Christian (Claes Bang), as a faux-woke tastemaker. A comedy of manners set in the high-end art world, Östlund’s follow-up to the arthouse darling Force Majeure gets the ironically named Christian to the eventual realization that he is, in fact, a terrible person. He treats a journalist–turned–romantic interest (Elisabeth Moss) caddishly, talks down to a homeless female immigrant at a convenience store, and, most egregiously, ignores the cries for help of an immigrant boy that he’d pushed down the stairs, fearing the damage to his career and reputation should he be caught as the culprit. Borrowing its title from a (fictional) art installation that recalls the public square and the social contracts it evokes, the film satirizes how easy it is to ply aesthetic and ethical discourse as one’s trade while abandoning all decency in one’s personal life.

If The Square errs on the side of repetition in hammering home its message, at least its apology for the hypocrisy of affluent white men of the so-called enlightened West feels novel. Its funniest scene, too, is original, with Christian and Moss’ Anne playing tug-of war over a condom, the journalist stubbornly insisting on throwing it in her trash can while the curator arrogantly clings to it, irrationally fearing that she’ll use his semen to impregnate herself. Mysteriously shacked up with a chimpanzee, Anne certainly fares better than Mother in coming across as her own person (even if the sexy female journalist who sleeps with her subject is a lamentable cinematic cliché). But in the end, Anne, too, mostly exists as a woman to wound.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is by far the rosiest of these apologetic visions. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a preeminent fashion designer named (hilariously) Reynolds Woodcock and Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps as his long-suffering partner Alma, Phantom Thread is set in the 1950s but feels both timeless and sadly contemporary.
Soon after dispatching his last girlfriend, Reynolds encounters the fresh-faced Alma on a visit to his hometown. On their first date, he requests that she wipe off her lipstick in a harbinger of things to come. Alma soon moves into the Victorian mansion that is also his studio, where he lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who serves as the designer’s foreboding and indispensable lieutenant. A graying bachelor, Reynolds cajoles and bullies Alma into whatever role he at the moment desires—muse, model, companion—while bristling anytime she falls out of line or dares to butter her morning toast. (The sound of the knife scraping against the bread drives the designer into a table-fleeing tantrum.)

Phantom Thread keenly observes how claustrophobic Alma’s life becomes once, for Reynolds, the novelty of his latest paramour wears off. She has her own ideas about fashion and romance, along with a need to leave the house once in awhile—all of which her stuffy older boyfriend hates. A breakup seems imminent, until Alma stumbles onto a solution: She poisons Reynolds, rendering him helpless. Whenever his need to dominate her becomes too much, she reduces him to an invalid. A control freak in every other aspect of his life, Reynolds encourages Alma to spike his tea when he discovers why he suddenly became violently ill the other day. The drama concludes with Reynolds, Alma, their new baby, and Cyril in the park, all three adults enjoying their newly calibrated relationships to one another.

We’re supposed to celebrate the fact that Alma convinces Reynolds to marry her, especially after his admission that he can’t imagine being anyone’s husband. I even have a critic friend who refers to Phantom Thread as his favorite rom-com of the year, complete with a meet-cute, an encouraging bestie (in the sister), and building tension about whether they’ll end up together. But Reynolds is so archetypally the Great Man who picks up and discards women at will—like a fairy-tale monster who transforms people into living statues—that I find the ending tragic, not twistedly idyllic. In resisting Reynolds’ spell so that she can remain her own person, Alma becomes a monster, too, transforming Reynolds into a child she can control more easily. After watching Alma endure so much humiliation from this fussed-over genius, I wanted something more for her than a love story based on a mutual taming.

Self-obsessed Hollywood has a long history of romanticizing male artistic genius with a handsome face and professional-grade charisma, from the three-plus versions of A Star is Born up through our current wave of Oscar-baiting biopics. That a subgenre has emerged this year about how difficult it is to be a woman expected to serve a Great Man is its own sort of progress. But it’s not enough if the entries in that subgenre mostly relegate women to victimhood. A truly remorseful film world might finally give women something to do other than suffer.

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