The Perfect Wife: Weaponising a Cultural Ideal in ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Phantom Thread’

20th Century Fox

“When I think of my wife I always think of her head,” Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), relays at the beginning of Gone Girl – the David Fincher directed, Gillian Flynn conceived tale of a couple’s relocation from New York to small town Missouri. “I picture cracking her lovely skull… trying to get answers. What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other?” As Amy (Rosamund Pike) glances vulnerably up at him, it is the very kind of shocking scene which perfectly sets up the premise of Flynn’s plot: less traditional thriller than a gothic horror-esque peek behind closed door suburbia.

It is with similar gothic relish that we are invited into the world of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, meeting Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps) as she sits by a crackling fire. “Reynolds has made my dreams come true,” she smiles hauntingly, “and I have given him what he desires most in return…every piece of me.”

Set in 1950’s London, Phantom Thread depicts the relationship between Alma, a European waitress and Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a neurotic and acclaimed fashion designer. Meeting through her work, Alma quickly becomes enthralled by the older man’s life of success, zooming around in his car and dining at fancy restaurants. From the very start however, something feels noticeably off, not least when – whilst intimately taking Alma’s measurements – his sister marches in to jot them down. “You’re the perfect shape,” she tells a disconcerted Alma, “yes, he likes a little belly.” As Alma’s face drops, the meaning and result is instantaneous: you are no-one special, this has happened before.

Universal

Despite such damaging implications, Alma seems initially willing to take on such a role, continuing to accompany Reynolds and Cyril (Lesley Manville) at their every whim. For her part, Cyril is the icy sidekick to her brother’s regimented life – not only his most steadfast supporter but the only willing to put him in place. It is a similar character to that of Nick’s twin sister Go (Carrie Coon), with both supplying an iconic voice of reason to their sibling’s destructive behaviour. “Oh boo-hoo I got laid off, I guess I’ll fuck a teenager,” versus “don’t pick a fight with me… it’ll be you who ends up on the floor.”

Intriguing and powerful characters in their own right, the pair do tend to occupy the space of their brother’s voice of reason, leaving both Amy and Alma to become sidelined and one-dimensional. For Alma this means becoming Reynolds’ ‘muse,’ an (albeit closer) version of the revolving mass of women willing to worship his talent. “I never really liked myself,” she narrates, “But in his work I become perfect.”

Whilst Alma finds herself submerged into the stifling upper-class society of post-war Britain, in Gone Girl, the characters must contend with the demise (or at least redefinition) of the once sought after American Dream: the national ethos in which success and upwards social mobility can be obtained by all as inevitable by-products of hard work. For Nick and Amy, this ethos has undergone a modern twist through neoliberalism, with the traditional work-hard mindset usurped by a culture that now requires self-managing, self-marketing subjects. Such a mindset – exacerbated further by the monetisation of her childhood for her parents’ Amazing Amy books – exemplifies the extremes Amy is willing to go to in the name of consumerism. To have Nick fall in love with her, she was willing to act the ‘Cool Girl,’ and did so whilst aware it would trap her into a stereotype she abhors. Thus Amy’s ideal, much like Alma’s muse, is shown to be not only artificial but dangerous: the very aspirations that are supposed to guide these characters’ successes are what will ultimately tear them down and destroy them.

20th Century Fox

Such entrapment is only exacerbated by the behavioural shifts of Nick and Reynolds who, upon moving back into their own social spheres, are quick to shed the attentive guise they had worn earlier in the relationships. Conversely, displaced into new surroundings – in both instances large, soulless houses with claustrophobic proximity to their spouses’ families – Amy and Alma are essentially forced into keeping up their part of the act. “I was fucking game,” Amy admits in her infamous ‘cool girl’ speech, “we were happy pretending to be other people. But Nick got lazy. He became someone I did not agree to marry.”

Their frustration is only multiplied when, letting their own guards slip, their partners react with indignation. “When did this happen,” Reynolds demands of Alma after she asks him to spend some time with her, “what happened to make you behave like this?” Over asparagus (cooked in non-compliance with his standards) the argument quickly escalates. “This is my house isn’t it? Who are you? Do you have a gun? Are you here to kill me?” Though grossly exaggerated (at least in Reynolds’ mind), his words strike a chord with the experiences of both women, who are actively vilified for expressing real emotion – the threat that if they do, they could easily be replaced by someone willing to act the part. “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” Alma replies repeatedly, “I’m standing around like an idiot waiting for you to get rid of me.”

Though whereas such revelatory outbursts lead Nick and Reynolds to resent them, Amy and Alma place the root of the blame not upon their spouse’s ‘true’ natures, but rather their inability to keep up their part of the charade; to recognise that they too were acting according to a cultural model which does not exist. Subsequently, their respective plots revolve less around changing the men’s perspectives than they do forcing them once more into keeping up their side of the bargain: to act ‘the perfect husband.’

Universal

Both plots are, of course, extreme. Amy, in a bid to frame Nick for her murder, fakes her own death, ultimately planning to take her own life once she has seen to his downfall. Alma respectively, wishing for Reynolds to need and value her, deliberately begins to poison him, sending away doctors so she alone can nurse him back to health. If successful, both schemes would prove their theories – Alma’s that Reynolds is “only acting strong,” and Amy’s that Nick has become the stoic “asshole” who deserves the consequences of what that implies. Of course they would also prove Reynolds’ point that “marriage would make me deceitful,” and Nick’s that he was only “pretending to be better than he was,” but after all, as Amy believes, “that’s marriage.”

Ironically, it is by adhering to the cultural model of the perfect wife that both women are able to enact their plans, using a much exaggerated version of the parts they had already been playing. For Amy this is by creating her ‘diary’ self: a woman head-over-heels for Nick who gradually begins to fear him. For Alma this is retreating once more into being seen rather than heard: the meek presence in the background that cooks, dresses and lives by request. Though whereas their partners seem ready to accept such reversal as a blip in their ‘perfect’ natures, Amy and Alma only see this as further cause for retribution: they have given the warning, and yet still their ignorance persists.

Consequently, it is the sinister ‘niceties’ which they are able to use as unassuming weapons: the pot of tea spiked with poisonous mushrooms, the treasure hunt puppet with the broken club. In such a way they essentially weaponise the very model which has been used against them; playing into the role of the “cool girl” Nick wants, or the muse Reynolds has been “looking for.” “You’ve found me,” Alma replies, [now] “whatever you do… do it carefully.”

Universal

Whereas Amy attributes many societal ills to this ensnaring cultural model, Nick perhaps has his own alternative within his view of the media. As a result, he finds himself torn between over and under-acting his grief, devoting much more time to his performance than he does to processing his actual reaction. Respectively Amy watches on, seemingly triumphant as the media holds up Nick’s stoic nature as evidence of his guilt. The smugness however, is about to come unstuck: as Nick takes to the Sharon Schieber stage to deliver his best performance to date, this time she becomes almost emotional, at least to the oblivious Desi (Neil Patrick-Harris), who tries to  turn off the television. “I’ve forgotten how to behave,” she sobs, silently praising her own performance as she watches that of her husband. They are now the same, the distinction never that he was the genuine to her artificial; simply that she was better at performing. This is now corrected; Nick is acting the ‘good husband,’ and therein lies her motivation: she doesn’t want him to act naturally, she wants him to act.

Respectively Alma also succeeds, with an unsuspecting Reynolds proposing following his mysterious illness. Accordingly, it is perhaps only once they have achieved their goals that these women take their schemes to a point beyond comprehension; ensuring their husband’s continued cooperation through the continued threat: they could easily do it again.

At face value, it is easy to criticise. Do we need Alma to poison Reynolds again? For Amy to murder Desi? However it is perhaps what these films say of societal, rather than individual, predilection that requires the depths these women descend to. Do we want them trapped in these awful marriages? For Nick and Reynolds to live in fear? Of course not. Yet, from the decadent upper-class society of post-war London to the consumer-driven furore of a modern day Midwest, mass opinion remains the same: if the doors are shut and the outside happy, we can safely ignore what’s inside.   

by Sarah Williets

Sarah Williets (she/her) is an English and Creative Writing graduate from Yorkshire, where she can be found contemplating the best way to phrase a sentence.

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