|Helena Fitzgerald||Feb 5, 2019|
(spoilers for The Favourite and Phantom Thread abound)
I wanted to be turned on by Phantom Thread; I really did. I was so excited to be, and so many of my friends lost their minds telling me that it was, like, a movie about kink but, like, a serious movie about kink. Even better, nothing in the trailer at all made it look like a movie About Kink, which made me feel even more certain that I was going to go see this movie and find it obscurely hot in the way everyone I knew hinted I would. How exciting! Then I went to see it and it made me want to peel off my own skin.
I mean, I loved it, that’s what I mean by that. It was a gorgeous movie, one I adored and hated at the same time. It both made me feel large, bleak feelings about the human condition and gave me the satisfaction of recognizing what other films its visual quotations were from. But, despite all the airlessly tense scenes of Alma standing still half-dressed while being objectified, the movie is not particularly interested in either sex or kink except as a container for its thesis about the way people attempt to love, and live with, and continue loving, one another. It is about how impossible it is for loving someone to be a good thing for either party, in the straightforward, public, rosy-cheeked idea of goodness, and it is about the private negotiations that drive any relationship, the unshared bargains with the worst of each other that allow long love.
But even this is an optimistic reading, one trying to make my feelings about these things better than they are and trying to make myself better than I am. We like people when they’re weak, the movie was saying, because then they can love us. Early in The Favourite, which I finally saw last weekend, Rachel Weisz, striding through a room (she spends almost the whole film striding through rooms, it’s glorious, inject it into my veins) stops and turns and says “I have a thing for the weak.” The easy reading of this line, and of her character, is that she likes weak people because she can control and manipulate them. But what the film unravels its way to may be something more akin to what Phantom Thread is saying: She likes weak people because then they can love her.
Both these films are about sickness, and love, and the intrinsic, bone-deep relationship between the two. Love and sickness have historically been associated; love is often figured as a kind of sickness, and sickness is often seen, in all kinds of popular culture, as the moment you get to find out if anybody loves you - who comes over to your house and makes you soup when you’re sick, who sits by your bedside. Sickness is supposed to be when we let people in, when we let ourselves be cared for; it is supposed to be a made-available space for love. When you ask someone in a long-term relationship when they knew this was it, that this was something significant, very often the story in the answer takes place in a hospital. One partner ceases to function on their own, and becomes suddenly dependent on the fact of the other’s working body. Love becomes a necessity, as utilitarian as a toilet or a knife. Sickness is a way for the partner who is not sick to prove they are useful to the other. One of the privileges of health is that it allows the healthy to be alone, that the closeness of or reliance on others is a choice rather than a need. Sickness makes room for love by stripping the sick person’s defenses, by putting them at someone else’s mercy; weakness invites love in the exact same way it invites cruelty. Very often the same things that make us lovable are the things that make us least safe.
In The Favourite, Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is dying of gout, but also, as part of the same gesture, of a broken heart - she reveals at a surprisingly late point, maybe halfway through the movie, that she has given birth to seventeen children over the course of her life, none of whom lived to adulthood (a fact so dizzyingly tragic that it at once seems like an outlandish plot device and is not at all surprising when it turns out to be historically accurate). Her grief and her sickness are both are a kind of horrorshow luxury. Anne lives in massive luxury - she’s the Queen, after all, wealthy in a way so profound that it erases the very idea of wealth; she is so unaware of practical financial concerns that she does not realize the war her country is fighting hasn’t ended until Sarah reminds her. Her grief and her sickness, as much as her wealth, afford her the luxury of giving in and giving up, sinking into the pure swamp of her body. The film is deeply and correctly suspicious of luxury, but it also is itself luxurious. The beautiful things in it, from the actors to the camerawork to the sumptuous fabrics and the floor tiles, are achingly beautiful, they make one at once reach for and recoil from the screen. It is a movie so textural it made my fingers itch, a story that places itself definitively in the world of objects.
The objects must be beautiful because the point is that ultimately everything in Anne’s life is an object. Colman’s queen is grotesque throughout the film, and at first seems pitiable for it. She seems very clearly to be prey. But her relationship to power - and to love and to her own body - is far more complex and unwieldy than it appears when we first witness her sadly watching a party from the confines of her wheelchair. Despite both her grief and her physical misery, it remains true that she is the only person in the story with real power, and everyone else’s machinations are moths gathered around the lamp of that intractable fact. If her physical weakness allows space for love, her absolute power by virtue of her position closes that space, making love finally unfeasible. Anne may truly be seeking the kind of small, sweet tenderness that sickness engenders, the person sitting at the bedside offering homemade soup, but her position as Queen makes it impossible for her to have that, or even know if she wants it. Her power, like the luxury that surrounds her, is a trap, and her sickness ultimately fails to offer a way out; the trap is too strong.
The love that sickness lets in is a tenuous negotiation; there is the real desire to care for someone, but the boundary between that selfless love and the giddy pull of here it is here’s my chance to be needed is not ever a definite line, and it is not always easy to spot on which side of it one has landed. Both these films illuminate the difficulty of keeping the caring side of love and the parasitic side separate, as well as the falseness of believing the two can ever really be cleaved from each other. We often romanticize the idea of loving someone not for their faults because because of them, but this ideal too easily tips over into the luxurious pleasure of loving a really awful person because you know they’re awful. People’s worst qualities when recognized are a sickness and therefore a vulnerability, a soft and giving place to climb inside, where no one is accountable and everyone is forgiven. It is always hard to know which part of this equation we really inhabit when we try to get up close to each other’s vulnerabilities, when we volunteer to be the only person left in the room when the gout flares up, the person overnight at the hospital in the sad little chair. It is not nice to look at the fact that tragedies are often also opportunities, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Among the most affecting scenes in a film full of affecting scenes is the moment in which Anne tells Abigail about how the bunnies she keeps in her bedroom represent the children she has lost, and Abigail holds one bunny close, softly defiant and protective. Then, from above, in a framing that makes the scene feel safer and gentler than much of the film, we see then sitting on the floor with legs splayed out like children, drinking champagne and eating cake, bunnies out of their cages and hopping happily around at will. It looks like an advertisement for something; it looks like the ending of a lesser movie. Love as pure indulgence, as cake for every meal. Everything you could ever want, always and with no conflicts forever.
One of the reasons for self-consciously making power a factor in a sexual or romantic relationship is that most of us desperately crave boundaries but are terrible at making them for ourselves. We want the limits that we cannot ourselves impose to be imposed by some outside force. We want to be forced into the thing we would not reach for; we want a version of love that is not cake all the time, despite the fact that we all keep asking for cake. In every scene after that, as Abigail worms her way into Anne’s affections, the bunnies are out all over the room, free from their cages, hopping around unmonitored. But it never feels sweet again; it immediately feels sinister, neglectful. When Anne eats cake and champagne, it makes her sicker, and Abigail knows that, and gives her them anyway. There are quite a few versions of love that are like eating something you know will make you sick, going back for more even when you’re sick already.
Every relationship is a relationship with a power dynamic. It’s tempting to say any narrative about power must therefore be about sex, when really all that means is it’s about a relationship. Making a game of that power or making some special kind of a big deal of it is merely a way to soften its truth, to pretend that the long and unresolvable negotiation of power is avoidable. It’s nice to claim that love rests in default at an even keel and an equal balance, and that relationships that exaggerate a power dynamic are something outside the norm, but really the only difference is in the level of the exaggeration. A friend said when we were much, much younger that perhaps the thing of finding the one, your person, was about finding the person with whom nobody was the one who loved more. I thought she was right then; now I’m not even sure I would want her to be, that the whole way of keeping interest over the painfully slow unfurling of long love isn’t the push and pull of who loves more, of who has more power, its small shifts imperceptible to anyone outside the tent of the relationship.
Phantom Thread’s thesis, or part of it, may be that the awful things we do to each other are often the ways in which we remain interesting to each other, the ways the story stays compelling, driving us to sit through another act, another unfolded parcel of mysteries, to not gather our things and stand up and leave and go out into the cold to see what restaurants are still open. Alma only holds Reynolds’ interest as a monster, and can be lovable only when she occupies a position that teeters somewhere between nurse and executioner. The only way into love is an enforced weakness on one side, and a plotted cruelty on the other; whether there is joy in these roles themselves, or whether they are merely the sacrifice the participants are willing to make because it is what opens up a space for love, is somewhat beside the point.
The Favourite offers two different versions of love, which are also two different versions of cruelty. Cruelty may be the inevitable response to the larger, systemic cruelty of the kind of power Anne wields through the fact of a monarchy. Cruelty may also be the way we access tenderness toward one another, but either way it infects every available version of love. The fact that love makes us monsters can be seen as one of its mercies, a relief valve from the performative and oppressive world. But also, it makes us monsters. The monster is a still a monster even when its subject is love, and the things with teeth still hurt you even when the hurt is a means to access love.
Partway through The Favourite, Sarah shoots a gun directly at Abigail. The gun isn’t loaded; it merely fires a blank and makes a huge noise. She then delivers a deliciously threatening speech about the dangers of being unsure whether or not one has loaded a gun, how there isn’t any way to know if something will be a joke or will kill you. It’s meant to intimidate Abigail, to warn her away from getting too close to Sarah’s lover, Anne. But it also makes the point that the games we play with one another cannot ever quite be safe. When we make ourselves more lovable by making ourselves weaker, or when we try to fan up love by being cruel, the stakes are as real as bodies. The negotiation in Phantom Thread only works because the threat of death is real, and that film only works as a love story if you accept that it’s a horror movie, too. The danger cannot be palliated by the fact that both parties agree to the game, nor by declarations of romance painted onto the constantly teetering negotiation of power. The gun may very well be loaded. Weakness is an effective strategy by which to make oneself lovable, but if you die in the game, you die in real life.