Lindy Miller’s piece in Jezebel says just about everything there is to say about Love Actually, viz., that “this is a movie made for women by a man” wherein the only expressions of straight romantic “love” on show are ones where men lay claim to voiceless women.
If you haven’t seen the film, it consists of multiple interlinked plotlines, all of them centred on an actual or potential straight couple. An eleven-year-old pines after a cool girl from America. The Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) crushes on his secretary. A writer (Colin Firth) falls in love with his Portuguese housekeeper, who speaks no English. There are lots, I won’t list them all, but suffice it to say that none of them are particularly original and/or revelatory. Straights gonna straight.
It is a fact, though, that the storylines that come closest to showcasing actual, healthy love as it manifests in the real world are the ones where a romantic connection is missed or dropped; the ones that end unhappily from a traditional rom-com perspective. So: Sarah (Laura Linney) chooses her mentally ill brother over her workplace crush, which, in the world of Love Actually, is a terrible tragedy that dooms her to a life of spinsterhood. Women: men require your complete attention at all times! Meanwhile, Karen (Emma Thompson) chooses to stay with her emotionally unfaithful husband for (it’s implied) the good of their children, a sacrifice I’m not sure I can see any of the male characters making.*
What to make of this? That romance is incompatible with real life and real commitments? I’m not sure director Richard Curtis really means to suggest this, but it’s a compelling reading of the film’s worldview nonetheless. I’m particularly thinking of that bizarre subplot where Colin, who is everything his name suggests, heads out to America to find women to sleep with. The scene where three impossibly hot American ladies ALL find him adorable and invite him back home for a foursome reads like a dream sequence, honestly, so removed is it from reality. Oh, then there’s the subplot where Karen’s husband’s hot employee throws herself at him repeatedly, despite the fact that he literally looks like Snape. And then there’s the bit when a woman whose husband’s best friend has been creeping on her is FLATTERED rather than running away extremely fast…And then…
Well, you get the idea. Almost the entire film is the fantasy of an average-looking straight man: filled with women whose entire world revolves around him (because LUURVE). And woe betide them if they care about anything other than him: they shall be denied the comforts of romantic male company FOR EVER! (Just as well, you might think, given Love Actually‘s conception of what romantic love is.)
And yet. Love Actually remains quite watchable. Doubtless that has something to do with the calibre of the actors involved – it’s one of those films that will have you playing the “now, what were they in?” guessing game – but I also think there’s something about the mildly unconventional shape of the film, the various intercutting plots and subplots, that holds the attention. There’s something for even the most hostile watcher to enjoy (for me, Emma Thompson; Bill Nighy; Rowan Atkinson in a cameo as an officious department store worker). And the whole thing is nicely paced, too, bringing those interconnecting strands together towards the end of the film to place the characters in a community of sorts. Because, you know, love is all around us.
Gods help us.
*I’m still not sure what to do with the storyline about an ageing rock star played by Bill Nighy and his manager, which is also quite sweet. I always read them as gay/bisexual, but I am assured other people don’t.