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The Brooding, Difficult, Beloved Genius (Who’s a Woman)

Like this guy…but a woman

I was saddened to read Noah Berlatsky’s critique of The Phantom Thread. Most prestige films tend not to interest me much  but this one looked as if it might actually interesting–lush and romantic. But after reading the review I’ve decided I’m in no hurry to see it.


Reynolds’ relationship with his next girlfriend, Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), is similarly controlling and emotionally manipulative. On their first date, he wipes off her lipstick because he prefers women without it; after they start living together, he snaps at her for buttering her toast too loudly. He is the artistic genius. Her job is to inspire him to make great clothes, and to stay out of his way.

The film knows that Reynolds is a jerk. But it also wants him to be a sympathetic romantic figure. He may be emotionally abusive, selfish and impossible, but that’s part of his amazing genius. Besides, Alma can handle him. She repeatedly tells him he’s too finicky, and stands up for herself when he snaps at her. Alma and Reynolds, it turns out, (spoiler) even have a kind of S&M relationship. Whenver he gets too unpleasant, she surreptitiously feeds him poisoned mushrooms, making him horribly ill before she nurses him back to health. (He knowingly accepts this as a part of their relationship.)

But while Reynolds is not Harvey Weinstein, or Louis C.K., or Kevin Spacey, the film still reproduces the logic which has made it so difficult to hold Weinstein, or C.K., or Spacey to account. In Phantom Thread, men have genius, and women are valuable, admirable and worthy of attention to the extent that they support that genius. Not all male genius artists are abusers. But it’s hard to bring down the ones who are if women matter less than a phantom thread.

You get the picture.

But beyond the film’s politics (or tone-deafness or however you’d like to describe its message) I’ve been thinking about a certain kind of male protagonist we see a whole lot of in film and television: the brooding, difficult, quirky, temperamental genius (that everyone loves because, HELLO, GENIUS). And I’ve just been wondering if there’s ever been a movie or television show made about a difficult woman genius. I asked my tweeps and got several interesting answers, but I’m not sure they met my qualifications. (Possibly because I didn’t articulate them well enough.)

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