I know a woman who likes to shop. I am grateful not to be the person in the store who sells her things because she is always dissatisfied with her purchases. One example. I watched her shop for athletic shoes on one occasion. She took close to an hour trying on different pairs of shoes in different sizes. She finally decided on one pair and made the purchase. Two days later I happened to be picking up a tennis racket for a friend, and I saw her again. She was unhappy with the purchase and returned to the store looking for refund or for a different pair of shoes. The same obsessive behavior was observed when she bought a piece of jewelry or a hat.
That kind of monomania typifies the approach of famous fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock to his work and to his relationships with other people, especially women. His story unfolds in Phantom Thread.
The narrative begins in 1954 in London. The opening scenes reveal Woodcock’s obsession with detail and his controlling personality. On a rare visit to the countryside, he meets Alma, a waitress at a restaurant, and their friendship blossoms into a relationship in which Alma becomes Woodcock’s artistic inspiration and lover.
At first, the relationship is calm and refreshing for both Alma and Woodcock. Over time, however, Woodcock’s obsessive personality reasserts itself and they begin to argue with one another. He criticizes her for even attempting to disagree with him: “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation, please. I’m delivering the dress today, and I can’t take up space with confrontation. I simply don’t have time for confrontations.” He refuses to invest in human relationships that disturb his equilibrium.
Things come to a head when Woodcock excoriates Alma for preparing a romantic dinner for him that breaks his normal work routine, which to him is sacrosanct. Alma is repelled by Woodcock’s obsessive concern for his own needs, yet she still cares for him greatly for he is the gateway to a new and exciting life for her. Her challenge: finding a way to make Woodcock more a man of feeling, willing and ready to emotionally connect with other human beings. She embarks upon an unconventional strategy by which she will cause him to experience a sense of mortality. This will compel him to rely on other human beings and not live a life of emotional isolation.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first chief Ashkenazi Chief rabbi in Palestine appointed in 1921, wrote about the importance of both the mind and the heart in living a full life: “Man cannot live with intellect alone, nor with emotion alone; intellect and emotion must forever be joined together Only the quality of equilibrium, which balances intellect with emotion, can deliver him completely.”
Moreover, in Ecclesiastes written by King Solomon in the autumn of his life, it states there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh. A time to wail and a time to dance” (3:2-8). To live life fully, we must embrace life with all its varied and at times contradictory thoughts and emotions, especially when it comes to loving another person.
Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst and humanistic philosopher, discusses the paradox of love: “Two beings become one and yet remain two.” Rabbi Maurice Lamm gives a Jewish twist to this notion. He writes: “The Torah, in requiring the end result of man and woman becoming one flesh requires ezer, an overcoming of loneliness, a mutual completion of the selves, and also ke’negdo, an opposite, independent person with whom one chooses to side at will.” Woodcock finally comes to this understanding when he experiences a near death experience. At that moment, he sees Alma both as an opposite and as one who gives his life a sense of emotional completion.