Hungering for Love
[Note: This is a review of the film, Phantom Thread, and includes spoilers for plot points throughout the film.]
Love nourishes. Love devours. Our appetite for it expands, even as it satisfies. Released in 2017, Phantom Thread makes literal the violence of love and the hunger to connect with another person.
Set in 1950’s London, the film follows preeminent fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, as he meets waitress Alma and takes her for a muse and lover. Tension rises in this gothic love story when the willful Alma moves into Reynolds’s fashion house. She tries to create room for herself and their relationship within the rigid routine he maintains to create his work. Throughout the film the lovers mingle and clash over the dinner table, often over food Alma has prepared.
The pair first meet when Reynolds visits the restaurant where Alma waits tables. The pair are immediately taken with each other, as Reynolds orders a long list of breakfast items and Alma faithfully writes it down. When he has finished ordering, he asks her if she will remember all of it. She responds that she will, and he keeps the order form where everything is written. She returns with everything as he has asked for it, and he invites her to have dinner. She accepts and hands him a note she has already written introducing herself. In this scene, their budding love literally fulfills a hunger with the bringing of food, but beyond that, they demonstrate an understanding of each other. This love intuits and understands what is needed. This love nourishes and strengthens those who love and are loved. It is the love we all seek to have in any relationship. It’s the love that’s easy to desire.
As the film progresses, the romance between Reynolds and Alma strains and fractures. They feel deeply for each other, but Reynolds refuses to alter the rigid structure of his life. He doesn’t want anything about his life to change other than for Alma to be present when he wants her company. He will not give up the control he has spent so long cultivating. Growing frustrated by Reynolds’s repeated sidelining of their relationship in favor of his work, Alma concocts a plan to force the issue. As the film draws toward its finale, Alma prepares an omelette for Reynolds, one that she has poisoned with wild mushrooms. As they sit down to eat, Reynolds takes a bite of the omelette and meticulously chews it while he stares at Alma. He knows she has poisoned it. As he chews, she tells him, “I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open with only me to help. And then I want you strong again. You're not going to die.” The poison is not to kill Reynolds. It is to make him sick, to forcibly slow him down and let Alma care for him. He swallows. He accepts that his life must change if their relationship is to survive.
Embracing a life of faith, loving God, will cost you something. To shy away from that is to deal dishonestly with the realities of faith.
While it is probably ill-advised to poison one’s lover to gain quality time together, Phantom Thread doesn’t shy away from a simple truth: love demands things of us. Love fulfills a hunger, but it requires us to clear away the things in our life that we have used to satisfy ourselves in its place. This struggle is dramatically heightened in Phantom Thread, as Reynolds cannot bring himself to do what he needs to in order to create space for him and Alma to be together. Whenever a moment arises where he must choose between his relationship with Alma and his control over his household, he chooses control. The movie reaches its climax as Reynolds comes to understand this about himself and chooses to trust Alma by swallowing the poison. While food sustains, poison weakens, but in a twist, Alma’s poison weakens Reynolds, so he can embrace what will really sustain him. Love is a surrendering of your will to someone else’s.
As Christians, we sometimes shy away from the violence of love, eschewing it in favor of a strict “patient and kind” definition. But we are called to die to ourselves, so we may live in Christ. That’s why pride is sometimes described as the most dangerous sin, because it’s the belief in one’s own promotion and preservation above anything else. It’s a refusal to submit to the influence of another and to be remade by that influence. The love of God doesn’t call for self annihilation. It’s a reformation. To love and be loved by God is to become more fully oneself. To the humble and the faithful, this reformation is growth; it’s uncomfortable, but necessary. For a person wedded to a certain version of themselves, however, this reformation is a death of self; it isn’t just uncomfortable, it’s violent. Embracing a life of faith, loving God, will cost you something. To shy away from that is to deal dishonestly with the realities of faith. But, but, but this is not a poison that kills. Like Reynolds’ rigid control, embracing God’s love is a death to the parts of ourselves that we don’t need, the parts of ourselves that stunt our growth. They need to be cleared away. That clearing will probably not feel great in the moment. But after it passes, we will rise again, perhaps a little unsteady, certainly more humble, and stronger for depending on something greater than ourselves. This love will satisfy deeper and create an even greater hunger. We will turn, as Reynolds does at the end of the film, toward the source of our love, and say, “I'm getting hungry.”