Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
**This article contains spoilers for Phantom Thread.**
Loneliness often feels like a curse. We do our best to outrun it, and we sometimes succeed. But when the noise and busyness of life fade away, there it remains—the sinking feeling that we are all alone. This is the outlook of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, the Oscar-nominated Phantom Thread—an examination of loneliness that simultaneously bursts with passion, fear, and spiritual apprehension.
Phantom Thread tells the story of London’s premier dressmaker, Reynolds Woodcock (played by Daniel Day-Lewis). Reynolds has it all—he is in demand and at the top of his game—and yet, he cannot avoid feeling like he is somehow cursed. We are never told exactly why, despite repeated pleas from his lover, Alma to let her in on the secret. Our only clue is a passing mention of an old superstition: that those who make wedding dresses are doomed to end up alone.
How do we respond to the feeling that we are cursed? We set up self-protection mechanisms to manage the loneliness—work, entertainment, distraction. For Reynolds, that mechanism is his order. On the surface, he doesn’t seem bothered by a curse or by his bachelorhood. He operates with supreme confidence in the world of fashion, and his obsession with his craft leaves little time for anyone else. But a curse explains why Reynolds orders his world so meticulously and why he guards his routines with such ferocity. Order makes him feel busy and in control. When the thrill of creation fades, and he crumples from exhaustion, Reynolds must face his belief that he is and must always be alone.
In those moments, Reynolds longs for his deceased mother. She represents a time, before the “curse,” when there was someone to care for him when he wasn’t strong. Someone to stay by his side until he was whole again. With her, he could be a child, helpless but secure in his mother’s arms. Now, he has no one to rescue him when he descends into dark valleys of loneliness. He must climb out himself. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Reynolds sees an apparition of his mother at the height of a violent fever. He begs her to stay, but she is silent, unable to help. She too has been tainted by the curse, clothed in the very first wedding dress he ever made—a ghost forever separated by death.
Enter Alma. In need of inspiration, Reynolds spends the weekend in a small country town. There, he meets Alma (played by the fantastic Vicky Krieps) at a restaurant where she works as a waitress. The two quickly fall in love. Alma is everything Reynolds could ever want. She possesses a quiet but fierce determination. She appreciates the beauty of Reynold’s dresses and his dedication to his craft. Most importantly for Reynolds, she is present for him in his moments of weakness (just like his mother once was). During his fever (which, incidentally, was brought on by Alma), Alma quite literally takes his mother’s place—the camera pans from his mother’s unmoving ghost to Alma tenderly caring for him. Anderson pictures Reynolds’ longing for Alma as an untamed appetite he didn’t know he possessed. At their first meeting, Reynolds uncharacteristically orders a laundry list of breakfast foods, prompting Alma to leave a note on his receipt: “for the hungry boy.” With Alma, Reynolds wants more than his customary breakfast pastries nibbled in silence; he wants to eat and eat and eat.While the film works as a metaphor for the difficulty of relationships (and the conclusion is not to be taken literally), it also provides a picture of spiritual pursuit.
He quickly learns, however, that Alma is far more than a pretty model for him to dress and bark commands at. She is every bit his equal—just as resourceful, stubborn, and eccentric as he is. Except, instead of dressmaking, Alma is laser-focused on stripping off Reynolds’ proud exterior and exposing the secrets beneath. She wants to uncover what drives him, so she can plant herself as the source of his strength. She will stop at nothing until he needs her, even if that means breaking him down herself.
Alma is a threat to Reynolds’ order, something he is unwilling to surrender. It has propped him up for so long that it has become an essential part of his identity. Giving himself completely to her would leave him vulnerable to that familiar sting of loneliness, which he tries so desperately to avoid. Instead, he tries to stifle Alma into his familiar world. Alma, of course, doesn’t play along. “If you want to have a staring contest with me you will lose,” she tells him on their first date. Reynolds takes her challenge, and the couple subsequently goes through sullen silences and shouting matches, each pushing the other to see who will blink first.
If we look beyond Reynold’s peculiarities and difficult personality, it’s not hard to place ourselves in his shoes. Our self-protection mechanisms are hopefully not as extreme as his, but we still possess their crumbs—and they wreak havoc on our closest relationships. They trap us in a cycle of pulling in and pushing away; of hungering for love but fearing rejection. Phantom Thread asks if there is any hope in relationships for people like Reynolds, who view love with a profound pessimism. For most of the film, Anderson paints a bleak picture of our prospects. Alma and Reynolds’s constant arguing wears us down until we are exhausted and ready to give up on their relationship. We realize no amount of desire can fix their conflict so long as Reynolds clings to his destructive habits of self-protection.
But then comes the twist. Just as their relationship seems to hit a breaking point, Alma and Reynolds reach an odd agreement: Alma will poison Reynolds then nurse him back to health. “I want you flat on your back, I want you helpless with only me to help,” she tells him. “And then I want you to be strong again.” Reynolds agrees with a wry grin and a kiss. The tension breaks, and the film’s score, which had turned suffocating and claustrophobic amidst the constant fighting, resumes its warm tones. In this arrangement, both parties get what they desire: Alma gets Reynold’s brilliance but also his vulnerability; Reynolds, his work but also care for his darkest moments. Pushed into a corner, the two lovers find the only possible option to make their strange relationship work.
I couldn’t help but think that in her own odd way, Alma and her extreme methods are a picture of God’s grace—a grace which finds us in our loneliness. While the film works as a metaphor for the difficulty of relationships (and the conclusion is not to be taken literally), it also provides a picture of spiritual pursuit. Up to the very end, Reynolds fights to avoid admitting his real problem: that he still feels like a lost child without his mother. It takes Alma’s relentless determination to drag out his secret. Despite all his attempts to break her, humiliate her, and push her away, she is equally resolved to force her way into his heart. Why? Because she wants the very thing Reynolds most fears—his curse, his loneliness. Isn’t that what we all long for? We fear we are unlovable or damaged beyond repair. We hide so no one will see the parts of us which will inevitably drive them away. But what if someone was drawn to our curse and our need? What if they were willing to stay through all our messiness because they wanted us that badly?
Still, there is something off about Alma’s obsessive devotion to Reynolds (something unlike God’s grace entirely). Apart from the sadism of her enterprise, one senses that Alma loves Reynolds because she places an unhealthy amount of her worth in being loved and needed by him. This is not a saint rescuing a sinner by her unwavering commitment to care for him, but rather two people who are neurotic in just the right ways to perfectly compliment the other’s flaws. I don’t mean that as an indictment of Phantom Thread. Anderson is more interested in asking questions than providing concrete answers. He playfully challenges us to imagine what might happen to our relational stalemates if we allowed ourselves to be radically vulnerable and a little bit crazy.
In the Gospel, however, we find a God who can truly break the curse of loneliness, whose love bears all the best qualities of Alma’s love without any of its deficiencies. Like Alma, God brings us to an end of ourselves so he might become the source of our strength. Like Alma, his love is often a strange and surprising twist that finds us when we feel most exhausted and hopeless. Unlike Alma, however, God gives us grace not to fulfill his own needs, but generously from the overflow of his abundance. Unlike Alma, God is able to truly fill the gaping holes at the center of our beings in a way that lasts. He can provide the protection and care that Reynolds seeks from his mother and satisfy the hunger which draws Reynolds to Alma. Most of all, he is determined to have us even if that means bearing all the consequences of our curse. Indeed, he already has, all those years ago on a bloody wooden cross.
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