A Fine Romance Friday: Love, Actually

Ten years ago Love, Actually released. I was reminded of this yesterday when I read this article about what we’ve learned from it.

This makes me feel old. I was in college at the time and I saw it in theaters, though fairly late in the game because I’m really distrustful of movies with too many major stars and in 2003, it would have been difficult to cram more famous British actors into a single film than Love, Actually did. (Remember, most of the Harry Potter films hadn’t released yet.) I only relented when everyone I knew saw it and insisted it was terrific.

In the intervening decade, Love, Actually has entered the canon not just of romantic comedies, but also of holiday movies. It’s a staple on American TV in November and December. It’s the kind movie I can use as an example in class with confidence that most of my students will have seen it. It’s also this week’s fine romance selection–the first one since August!

Above the fold, I’m going to do a typical fine romance Friday rah-rah-rah post. But I have really complicated feelings about the movie, so if you want to see my spoiler-y, critical commentary, follow me below the fold.

Love, Actually is definitely one of the best romantic comedies of the last twenty years. It’s set in contemporary London and concerns inter-connected characters and stories playing out over the six weeks leading up to Christmas. There are happy stories and sad stories. New love and old love. Romantic love, platonic love, and familial love. It’s sweet and charming and delightful.

Though the background is Christmas-y, it’s a largely secular film and one that’s designed to make you feel good without feeling used. (Though after I took the narrative apart as I’ll demonstrate below, I did feel a bit manipulated.)

I’ll be watching it tonight with something red and festive and trying to find some holiday spirit.

Spoilers & Ruining of Love, Actually Commence Here

There are nine major stories in the film. (1) Billy and Joe: an aging rock star realizes that his primary relationship is with his manager; (2) Juliet, Peter, and Mike: the best friend of a young married couple is in love with the bride; (3) Jamie and Aurelia: a recently dumped writer falls in love with his Portugese maid; (4) Harry, Karen, and Mia: a married graphic design manager has an affair with his secretary; (5) David and Natalie: the Prime Minister falls in love with his catering manager; (6) Daniel and Sam: a recently widowed man helps his stepson pursue his grade-school crush; (7) Sarah and Karl: a graphic designer almost gets the guy of her dreams until her commitment to her mentally ill brother interferes; (8) Colin: a British dude discovers that American chicks dig accents; and (9) John and Judy: film stand-ins fall in love.

Here’s my problem. Fully four of the nine love stories involve men falling for (or realizing that they have always loved) subordinates (Billy, Jamie, Harry, and David); the only two women over the age of thirty get completely screwed (Karen and Sarah); and almost all of the main characters are white and all of the couples are straight–Peter is black but only appears in something like two scenes; Colin has a black friend who again appears in like two scenes; the Prime Minister has a black secretary who appears in like two scenes; and Billy and Joe are straight we are assured. This isn’t a reflection of modern London.

The other story lines play like (straight) male fantasies: your wife dies and you end up with a super model! You travel to a strange place (Wisconsin) and land four hot chicks (three of them at once)! You are a porn stand-in and you get the girl! Indeed only one of the stories is told from a female perspective (Sarah and Karl) and it’s arguably the most tragic…well, along with Harry, Karen, and Mia.

To extend this further, other than Sarah and Judy, none of the women have professions. They are all caretakers of some kind. The men have identities outside of gender stereotypes and possess real power. The women are, well, objects. They can’t even manage the gumption to pursue any of these relationships. They are always being chased.

It isn’t that any one of these stories is problematic. But when you have such seeming situational diversity of relationships on screen (and by the time you add in all of the various connections between the strands, it’s a lot of relationships), the aggregate matters. After all, the name of the movie is Love, Actually. It makes the argument that it’s showing us the kaleidoscope of love and romance and friendship. Why then do most of the stories seem like one another and why do they almost all replicate the same old boring male fantasies of power and sexuality?

I want to be clear that this isn’t an evangelical post. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty for loving Love, Actually. All I’m saying is that I had probably seen this movie twenty-five times, I went to the trouble of buying it on DVD, and only recently did I notice patterns in the narrative that now seem patently obvious to me. My point is that this is a manipulative film with a political agenda that’s conservative and pro-status quo. I’m shocked that it took me so long to realize this, at least until I remember how funny Bill Nighy is in the movie.

So while I’ll watch it through at least twice and bits and pieces of it over and over again during the holiday season, I’ll feel odd about it.

(Note: part of this post first appeared on my personal, non-writing blog, but I’m reprinting it here.)

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