Difficult Men Meet Their Match In “Fifty Shades” And “Phantom Thread”

The Best Picture nominee and the erotic trilogy don’t banish the aspirational fairy tale of what happens to women who marry powerful men, but they do both hold it up to a new light. Spoilers below!

Comparisons between the Fifty Shades films and Phantom Thread started cropping up online as soon as the first trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson's latest arrived, with people joking about a broad resemblance between the Oscar nominee and the mommy porn hit. But once you start actually considering the similarities between Phantom Thread and the E.L. James–based trilogy, they become impossible to unsee. Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) is a brooding businessman and Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a fashion designer, but they're both demanding men with a thing for lips and a fixation on their mothers. More importantly, they're men who've shored themselves up, emotionally and professionally, in their respective fortresses, allowing a carefully selected series of lovers into their spaces and having them shooed out when they're no longer wanted.

One of the assumptions that goes along with our culture’s continued, if souring, mythologizing of powerful men is that to be uncompromising is a show of strength which inevitably requires others to conform to their will. The other, of course, is that it’s up to the people who want to be with those men to comply to the romantic terms they set out, or be replaced, because he has earned the right to do as he wants. Reynolds and Christian are revered as singular, essential figures, but their lovers get treated as anything but. Replaceability haunts both stories in the suggestion of the (mostly unseen) women who've come and gone before. The women we do see are hurt and unhappy because they want more — the distraught former submissive who turns up with a gun in Fifty Shades Darker, the soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend at the start of Phantom Thread who asks Reynolds "There’s nothing I can say to get your attention aimed back at me, is there?"

The women who do break this pattern, virginal undergrad Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and winsome server Alma (Vicky Krieps), both enter the lives of their future paramours as artless supplicants — the first thing they're seen doing by the men is tripping over their own feet. But they both end up triumphant, not so much because they’ve secured matrimony, but because they've managed, by whatever means necessary, to carve out a place for themselves in the lives of the powerful men they love.

It's understood to be funny, that one of these films is a prickly Best Picture nominee while the others are considered, generously, trashterpieces, although a lot of the people who have strong opinions on the Fifty Shades series have never actually watched any of it. The Fifty Shades movies are wildly out of step with current conversations about female empowerment and independence, widely (and snidely) scoffed at as softcore porn for suburban housewives, and inarguably silly — sometimes intentionally so. They already seem consigned to being a pop cultural footnote, even though the trilogy’s final installment has only just opened in theaters.

When Fifty Shades of Grey premiered in 2015, it was to a barrage of anticipatory criticism based on the novels' disturbing tendencies with regard to consent. They were tendencies the adaptations wisely ditched — the films are basically PSAs for sexual communication — not that it mattered. What really smarted for some women, and what continues to smart, is the way these films have so lucratively peddled an updated, R-rated version of romantic fables we're supposed to have left in the dust.

It's hard to convey to anyone who hasn't seen the Fifty Shades series just how unlike typical movies they are. The love story of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey is, for long stretches, barely a story at all, unconcerned with essentials like conflict or action. After all, that's not what the audience has come to see. When the unavoidable relationship problems or bouts of kidnapping are introduced, it's with great reluctance, as if the movies themselves hate to jolt Anastasia and Christian out of their thousand-thread-count idyll. The third and final installment, Fifty Shades Freed, for instance, doesn't culminate with its heralded wedding — it begins with it, before whisking the main characters off to a honeymoon where they swan around Paris and then sunbathe in the south of France.

The series is famous for the semi-adventurous sex the two lovers have — sex that is effortlessly orgasmic, and, in this latest film, accessorized with restraints, safe words, blindfolds, vibrators, a butt plug, and a pint of ice cream. But these languorous interludes are just as much about footage of the characters enjoying the bounties of Christian's incredible wealth, presented via montages set to pop songs. In the first film, Christian takes Anastasia out over Seattle at night in his helicopter, to the ecstatic strains of Ellie Goulding; in the second, he lets her steer his yacht across the Puget Sound while that Taylor Swift–Zayn Malik duet swells. When the third film closes by running through highlights of the pair's romance, it amounts to a montage of montages, which is exactly the kind of ridiculous but earnest choice that's defined the entire franchise — the luxury photographed with equal if not greater lust than the lovemaking.

The Fifty Shades films unapologetically indulge in high-gloss dreams of being swept up and showered with gifts by someone possessed of an immense fortune and talented penis. 

The Fifty Shades films are outlandish fantasies about dating someone who is as dominant in his professional life as he is in the confines of his custom sex dungeon. They unapologetically indulge in high-gloss dreams of being swept up and showered with gifts by someone possessed of an immense fortune and talented penis — part ravishment and part fairy tale — that are all the more embarrassing for still being able to compel audiences, to the tune of over a billion dollars at the global box office for the entire series. There's a guilelessness to their avarice, in the fact that Anastasia doesn't fall for Christian because of his success, but doesn't fall for him in spite of it, either. That he's a big deal (in an amusingly undefined way — it's never very clear what his company, Grey Enterprises Holdings, does beyond make questionable investments in independent publishing houses) is an essential part of his identity and his appeal.

But the films are also, in a way that's almost unbearably wistful, daydreams about extracting an equitable relationship from a situation in which there's a huge power imbalance. The sex gets top billing in the franchise, but the arc of the trilogy is one of a woman demanding emotional intimacy from a man so determined to withhold it that he puts his rules in writing: This romance begins with a nondisclosure agreement and ends on an image of blissful familial domesticity.

Christian may be a fanciful billionaire boyfriend, but he is, by any reasonable assessment, a terrible one for most of the trilogy — distant, controlling, secretive, possessive, and jealous, qualities that the series views through hopelessly rose-colored lenses, and qualities Anastasia is (mostly) able to make him relinquish. Once you get past the overheated branding, there's a plaintive streak to the Fifty Shades films, because they're not just about the fantasy of getting swept off your feet (and into a kinky relationship) by a powerful man, but about being treated respectfully by one, as an equal rather than a dismissible underling — a fantasy only because we've internalized how unlikely that is.

While Fifty Shades started as Twilight fanfiction, Phantom Thread is, essentially, fanfiction about Anderson's relationship with Maya Rudolph, who he's been with since 2001. "I was very, very sick in bed one night," he told a post-screening crowd in November, sharing what inspired the film. "And my wife looked at me with a love and affection that I hadn’t seen in a long time. So I called Daniel the next day and said, 'I think I have a good idea for a movie'."

It's an origin story that sounds sweet out of context and downright outrageous once you've seen the film, given that (spoilers!) it depicts how Alma eventually poisons her lover into emotional vulnerability, leveling the ground between the two of them. If Anderson sees himself in Reynolds, it's a slyly self-deprecating portrait. The character's testiness and onerous insistence on having things just the right way comes across as increasingly ridiculous as the film goes along. It’s not, actually, the behavior of a man who's too consumed with his work to have a relationship, but that of a man who's afraid of any situation that's out of his control.

Alma doesn't just defeat Reynolds; she saves him from himself, from his ascetic bubble.

Phantom Thread takes pains to make it clear that Reynolds Woodcock is not revolutionary. He's respected, and gifted, and at the height of his game — the toast of 1950s London, dressing royalty and the city's crème de la crème in his airy atelier. But his gowns, while lovely, are not the cutting edge of fashion ("Fucking chic," he mutters. "They should be hung, drawn, and quartered for that word.") It is not posterity that demands his single-minded focus on his creative output, it is his faith in his calling — and his ego, the same ego that leaves him acting like a scorned lover when a client deserts him to go with another designer. He wields the importance of his work as a shield against anyone who'd ask him to do something he'd rather not, and deploys his ferocious sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) as a weapon.

While the adventures of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele involve dabblings in consensual BDSM, Phantom Thread is about two people engaged in a more expansive, unspoken game of dominance and submission, with Alma revealing herself to be far more formidable an opponent than Reynolds could have ever imagined when flirting with her over his breakfast order. She enjoys being Reynolds' latest muse, likes giving a twirl during a fashion show, aware that he's gazing at her through a peephole. It's an electric moment in a film that otherwise uses sex for suspense — it keeps you wondering how much sexual interest Reynolds has in Alma, or in anyone.

But Alma doesn't want to be treated as a resource he'll use up and throw out. She wants to be his partner, to be acknowledged as a key part of his life, which is why she introduces herself to an important client in order to simply be seen, announcing "I live here." She arouses the most ardor Reynolds ever shows when she comes to the defense of his work, stripping it off the unconscious customer she feels is unworthy of wearing it.

If it's difficult to explain how strange the Fifty Shades films can be, it's just as difficult to characterize the surprising contortions of Phantom Thread, which appears from the outside to be a film about fashion, but turns out to be a perverse romantic comedy about two people who battle it out to achieve a wayward but perfect equilibrium. Theirs is combat fought in skirmishes over breakfast noises and buttered asparagus, the prize being an intimate universe that Alma and Reynolds get to share, rather than one she's only allowed to be a guest in. Alma doesn't just defeat Reynolds; she saves him from himself, from his ascetic bubble.

The chasm between centuries of romantic fiction concerned with wedding a powerful man, a tradition both of these stories could be a part of, and our expectations of what that might be like in reality, has maybe never yawned wider than at our current moment. We might still coo over Meghan Markle getting engaged to a literal prince, but who among us has gotten starry-eyed about the Trump marriage? The relationship between Donald and Melania Trump exists like a funhouse mirror reflection of the dynamic Fifty Shades swoons over — Christian's aggressive persistence is replaced with "when you’re a star, they let you do it," Anastasia's place ensconced in his penthouse turned into a point of view onto which people project imprisonment. And while Jamie Dornan and Donald Trump don't resemble one another in the slightest, they've both played cartoonish conceptions of successful businessmen on screen.

To consider a figure closer to a real world equivalent of Christian, there's actual swashbuckling entrepreneur Elon Musk, who's equally strapping and brilliant and apparently as demanding in his relationships in a way that, at least in his case, hasn't lead to a storybook ending. His first wife, Justine Wilson, recounted in writing about their marriage in Marie Claire that he told her at their wedding reception: "I'm the alpha in this relationship." That line, and what he reportedly said to her repeatedly during their relationship ("If you were my employee, I would fire you.") were precursors to an unsurprising divorce in 2008. The ultimatum Musk delivered, in which Wilson could accept their marriage as it was or be done with it, is reminiscent of both Fifty Shades of Grey and Reynolds' outburst over the surprise dinner Alma cooks for him. Unlike in the films, Musk's declaration was apparently the end of any discussion, not the start of it. He announced his engagement to eventual second (and then third) wife Talulah Riley six weeks later, which ended in divorce not once but twice, in 2012 and again in 2016.

We're still beholden to the idea of the difficult genius, the demanding executive, the aloof artist, the person who deserves to act this way.

That threat of replaceability, and the internalization of it — the idea that it's therefore on women to know better — haunts both Fifty Shades and Phantom Thread, as well as some of the conversations that we've had in this #MeToo moment. Look at how Caitlin Flanagan at the Atlantic wrote about Aziz Ansari in the wake of the messy Babe.net article last month, writing that the Ansari's accuser "wanted affection, kindness, attention" from him when she agreed to see him that evening, that "Perhaps she hoped to maybe even become the famous man’s girlfriend." Flanagan had no way of knowing if the latter was true, and the former desires really are less aspirations than hopes for basic date courtesy. But that doesn't stop her from implying that it was foolish to expect even that much, to want kindness from someone who is, after all, famous.

It's terribly convenient to think of yourself as too important, or too powerful, to have to concern yourself with the feelings of others, to make compromises, to accommodate others. But it's an excuse that we continue to accept, because we're still beholden to the idea of the difficult genius, the demanding executive, the aloof artist, the person who deserves to act this way because of their work, and the understanding of masculinity that accompanies it. That's a theme these films have in common, despite their vast differences in approach, with Phantom Thread working to dismantle and poke fun at the self-importance of its prominent man, while Fifty Shades opts for a wish fulfillment reworking of its restrictive romance into something functional. They don't banish the fairy tale, but they do hold it up to a new light.

These aren't treatises on how no one should get to behave this way; they're stories about how even the men who are indulged in this behavior end up the worse for it. They are sealed off and solitary, without any obligations toward empathy — the worst people to rule the world, though they often do. And they're also stories about women who insist on even ground, who fight for it and win it, even if it takes a few mild poisonings to get there. They may be about love, but they’re also very much about war. ●

Topics in this article

Skip to footer