"Don’t pick a fight with me, you won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through and you’ll end up on the floor.”
I didn't expect to leave my screening of Phantom Thread with a mantra, but there you are. Those words, spoken by Cyril Woodcock (Lesley Manville) set the tone for a film that, despite its male protagonist, is defined by its strong women. (For more highly-quotable lines, check out Vulture's list.)
When we first meet Cyril, she's already risen through the ranks of the fashion business she built alongside her brother, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). He's the genius, the creative force behind the clothes they sell. But she's the brains, the backbone of the House of Woodcock. Their intensely co-dependent relationship would be problematic — not to mention cliché: a single woman tasked with cleaning up her brother's personal, romantic, and professional messes — if it weren't for the fact that Cyril is utterly and completely content. And not in a "don't pity me, but actually do," kind of way.
She's a successful woman in her 50s who can destroy lives with one jibe — a British retro Miranda Priestly, if you will. She's stylish, emotionally put together, and redefines the word "competent." Basically, she's what I aspire to be when I grow up: a woman who breaks the mold and proves that there isn't just a handful of pre-set models to choose from.
And while the main relationship in Cyril's life is the one she shares with her brother, that doesn't prevent her from setting him straight (read mantra above) when his almost childish intransigence stands in the way of his, and more importantly her, happiness. She's not lonely, or bored, or incomplete, or any of the other words we so often use to describe childless single older women. As Allison P. Davis put it in her own ode to Cyril over at The Cut: "She's a damn hero."
This by itself, is perhaps not enough to lift Phantom Thread out of the realm of "movies about tortured geniuses and their women." That's where Cyril's relationship with Alma (Vicky Krieps), Reynolds' latest muse and romantic interest, comes into play. What starts out as an all too common rivalry between two women vying for the attention of a man evolves into a complex understanding based on mutual respect and admiration. They both love Reynolds, albeit in different ways, but they don't submit to him, nor do they sabotage each other in an effort to win his favor.
Manville had months to research the role, and develop a textual relationship with Daniel Day Lewis. We asked her what advice she has for aspiring Cyrils, and what she hopes women take away from the film, which hits theaters in wide release on January 19.
Refinery29: After I saw the film, I couldn't stop talking about Cyril, and she’s kind of emerged as an icon for ambitious single women.
Lesley Manville: "Has she?"
Yes! Why do you think that is?
"Well, I suppose if you think about that period in particular, women were kind of expected to be at home with their apron on, looking after the kids making dinner. Cyril doesn’t have a husband, and is very happy not to have one; doesn’t have children, and is very happy not to have any. She’s devoted to her brother and devoted to the business that they run, and has a sort of unusual relationship with him: she dispenses with his muses and his lovers. But it’s also very clear that Cyril is very formidable and won’t be put upon by her brother, she’s the sort of dominant force in the relationship, even if he’s the creative. She’s the backbone of the business — you know that this is not a woman to be messed with. For that period, women like that were less typical than they are now."
Even today, it’s rare to see a successful woman over a certain age, who’s unmarried and doesn’t have children, but who’s not lonely.
"That’s right. Her life is complete, and it’s complete without the all the things that typically, in the 20th and 21st century, we’ve been told that we need to complete our lives, which includes husbands and children, and a kind of more regular life. She’s definitely leading an irregular life. But she’s extremely happy, so I’m glad that she’s become a bit of an icon."
Her relationship with Alma is so interesting because at first, they kind of fall into this trope of fighting over a man, but that changes as the movie goes on.
"Yes, and to give Cyril her due, when Alma arrives on the scene, she probably thinks she’s going to be another muse/lover who lasts a few months and then will be going. But what she truly begins to admire about Alma is that she is challenging Reynolds to be a different kind of man, and to look at himself, and let go of some of his ego, and challenging him to have a grown up serious relationship with a woman, instead of just disposable relationships that he’s been having all his life. So she admires that in her, she sees a kind of kindred spirit, a woman who knows what she wants from her life, and is working hard to get it on her own terms, on equal terms."
How do you view Cyril and Reynolds’ relationship? Is it toxic, nice, both?
"I think it’s co-dependent for sure. And toxic? I don’t know. I think that’s too severe. It is what it is because it has evolved out of a kind of life that’s been thrown upon them. The problem is with Reynolds, that he obviously wants to have women in his life in another way: for sexual comfort, to have somebody to design his clothes on, and a muse to work with. But what Alma is saying is that if you want this in your life, and you clearly have affections for her that have gone beyond what he’s felt before, you have have to adjust your life and the set rules of your life to accommodate that. You can’t just say ‘Oh, I have dinner with Cyril every night.’ When Alma asks Cyril to leave the house for an evening so she can cook for him, you’d think that a World War had started. He just can’t cope with it, he just keeps asking her where Cyril is and when she’s coming back. That’s kind of unhealthy, but he’s just not comfortable with the status quo and his routine being rocked."
Cyril is a successful woman in a man’s world. Do you have any advice for women who are trying to break into a male-dominated field?
"I suppose you have to be very clear as to who you are, and what your goals are, and deal with the stuff along the way with all of the gumption that you can summon. And not take any nonsense. You don’t have to take stuff that isn’t right anymore. There’s no excuse for it any longer, nobody, just because they’re a woman, should be deterred from doing anything that they want to do. Keep going, until you’ve gotten where you want to get to."
"Yes, I absolutely do. I think it is a kind of quietly feminist film in its own way, because you’ve got this man, who yes, is a creative genius, but in many other ways he’s a mess. He’s narcissistic, and his ego is at the forefront of everything he does — he’s selfish. And what is interesting I think is that the added bonus of it — It takes Cyril into a challenging place as well, because she in a way forms an allegiance with Alma, and realizes that this brother of hers has to be tamed in some way, especially if he wants to keep this relationship.”
What do you hope women take away from this movie?
"It’s hard, because you have to look at this film in the context of the ‘50s, and women there were expected to be wives and mothers, and look after their man, and not necessarily have a career, so the backdrop is very different. But if women are seeing it now, and feel that they admire the challenges that Alma brings to Reynolds, and they admire Cyril for the way that she has handled her life, and is a kind of break with the norm of the culture of the period, then that’s a good thing. Just translate that to 2018 and go for it, girls."
"I do think it’s getting better, and I’ve been saying that for quite some time. I think it’s very slow, and gradual, but I do think it’s shifting because filmmakers, distributors are clearly reading the signs from box office, that women over 40, 50, 60 want to go to the cinema and see themselves represented. They don’t want to be ignored because they’re not thought of as being interesting to talk about, to look at, to discuss, or not interesting in a sexual sense. It is getting better, and that’s thanks to a lot of women in the film industry who are demanding that they be taken seriously and not just be ignored because they no longer have a 20-, 30-year-old face. There is a shift, and if you look at films that have been very successful recently — surprising successes like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which was a surprise hit because it dealt with people of a certain age who were refocusing and changing their lives so they could carry on having adventures."
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