We do not expect romantic comedies to be realistic, and so there is irony in the title of the movie Love Actually. Rather, we expect such movies to be idealistic about love, allowing couples to go through all sorts of absurd situations until they finally marry and live happily ever after. However, our tolerance for this is limited, which is why romantic comedies should be no longer than an hour and a half. Love Actually goes on for two hours and fifteen minutes. As a result of this length, we become painfully aware of the difference between the way love actually is and the way Love Actually says it is.
But the difference between love as we find it in the world and love as it is presented in this movie is exceeded by the difference between between the value this movie places on love and what love is really worth, for love is not an unqualified good. The narrator, who we later find out is the prime minister, says that the Arrival Gate at Heathrow Airport cheers him up, assuring him that love is all around. Well, after people have been separated from each other for a while, absence has made the heart grow fonder. But when we have had our fill of those we love, we can be grateful there is a Departure Gate as well.
The main reason for the length of this movie is that it consists of several different interweaving stories, centering around three themes: communication, sacrifice, and homosexuality.
It is a common situation in romantic movies to have two people that would be perfect for each other if one of them would just speak up and say, “I love you.” In one of the stories, Mark videotapes the marriage of Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Juliet (Keira Knightley), who constitute the obligatory miscegenous couple, something that has come to be expected in movies of late. Mark is Peter’s best friend and best man at the wedding. Peter wants Mark and Juliet to be friends, but Mark does not appear to like her. Later in the movie, Juliet discovers, when she sees the videotape of the wedding and reception, which is always focused on her, that Mark is obsessed with her.
Now, for some reason, the movie keeps promoting the idea that Christmas is the perfect time to be honest about one’s love. So, one evening shortly before Christmas, Mark shows up at Peter and Juliet’s place, and Juliet answers the door. Mark has a bunch of large cards on which stuff is written. The first one says for Juliet to tell Peter it is Christmas carolers, and he plays a recording of caroling that is on his tape recorder. (It is almost painful to relate this part.) He reveals one card after another, confessing his love for her. She kisses him affectionately. We get the sense that if Mark had just spoken up earlier, she might have married him instead. The result is a spiritual ménage à trois, in which we are to imagine that Mark and Juliet will now be able to love each other, though not consummating their feelings physically, which will make Peter happy, since he wanted them to be friends.
In a second story, Jamie (Colin Firth) discovers that his girlfriend has been having an affair with his brother when he comes home early one day. I wish I could say that it was unrealistic for her to have sex with Jamie’s brother right there in the house where she and Jamie live together. I mean, clearly, she should have gone to the brother’s place for sex. But people actually do such things, so I can only say that it’s stupid, not unrealistic. Anyway, he retreats to a place in France that he apparently goes to every year to write. He is alone there except for a housekeeper, Aurélia, an attractive young woman who speaks only Portuguese. They are such soulmates, however, that they recapitulate each other’s thoughts in their own language. So, even though they technically cannot communicate with each other, they nevertheless share the same thoughts and feelings. When it is time for him to go back to England, she returns to Portugal. Jamie makes a determined effort to learn Portuguese. When he speaks it just well enough to express himself, though imperfectly, he travels to Portugal, finds Aurélia, and tells her he wants to marry her. She accepts his proposal in English, revealing that she has been making an equal effort to learn his language.
David (Hugh Grant), a bachelor, is the prime minister of England. He falls in love with Natalie, who is a member of his household staff, but he cannot bring himself to tell her how he feels. He does have the nerve to ask her a bunch of personal questions about her love life, however. One day, he walks in on her and the visiting president of the United States (Billy Bob Thornton), just as the president is making a move on her. The way this movie encourages communication, I suppose the president should get some credit for communicating to Natalie his desire for a little nooky. In any event, David is disturbed by this and has her transferred to a job where he will not see her anymore. He gets a Christmas card from her, which essentially says that she loves him, after which he finds out where she resides so that they can live happily ever after.
Daniel (Liam Neeson) is mourning the death of his wife and is worried about raising his stepson, Sam. Something seems to be troubling Sam, and after making a concerted effort to communicate with him, Daniel discovers that the problem is that Sam, who is eleven years old, is in love with a girl at school named Joanna. (And here he thought it was the fact that the boy’s mother just died.) Joanna is extremely popular, and Sam doesn’t think she even knows he exists. Daniel convinces Sam that he must tell Joanna how he feels about her, or he will always regret it. Sam catches up with her at the airport and tells her he loves her. He is taken away by security guards, but she catches up with him and kisses him.
Sarah (Laura Linney) is in love with Karl, someone she works with. Harry (Alan Rickman), who is her boss, brings her into his office and tells her he knows all about her love for Karl. Moreover, he tells her that everyone in the office also knows, including Karl, and so it’s time she did something about it. Where does he get off? But then, as noted below in the section on homosexuality, she is just as bad as he is, prying into Mark’s personal life. And this recalls the way David pried into Natalie’s personal life. Apparently, communication is supposed to be such a wonderful thing in this movie that it does not occur to anyone to mind his own business.
Moreover, a lot of people have stuff they wish to keep private, and it is rude to tell them that you know all about their innermost thoughts and feelings. Worse than prying into someone’s private life is telling him he has no private life at all, that he is exposed to all the world. It is just good manners to pretend not know such things about another person, thereby allowing him to keep his dignity.
Anyway, she finally does get together with Karl, and they almost consummate their passion for each other. But then the phone rings. As this leads to the next theme, sacrifice, I will take up the rest of this story up in the next section.
There are two stories almost too silly to bother with, except that they show how forced and overworked this whole business about communication is. In one of them, John and Judy perform naked, simulated sex scenes as body doubles for a movie. But John is shy, and it takes a long time for him to work up the courage to ask her out on a date. When he finally does, she accepts, and it is clear that they will soon be lovers.
In the other, there is Colin, a nose-picking nerd, who decides that his problem is that British women are too stuck up. He decides that he will do better in America, especially with his accent. When he gets there, he immediately ends up being invited to spend the night in the same bed naked with three beautiful women, and with a fourth roommate, said to be the sexy one, who is on her way. In this case, it is not what is communicated that is important, but the accent with which it is said.
Placed one after another in this fashion, we see that this movie is unrelenting in its advocacy for communication as the panacea for all problems romantic. Now, it is certainly true that in order for a romance to get going, someone has to make the first move. But what is a necessary condition for love is not a sufficient one, and I trust no one is naive enough to think otherwise.
Looked at realistically, even if Mark were lucky enough to have a real-life Juliet answer the door instead of Peter, she would probably not have appreciated his unwanted advances and would have thought his routine with the cards to be creepy. The last thing a recently married woman wants is to be lusted after by one of her husband’s friends. Imagine how stupid a real-life Mark would have felt once he saw the expression on the face of a real-life Juliet, just before she shut the door on him while he was fumbling for the fourth card.
As for Jamie and Aurélia, the conceit that while they cannot communicate through language, they nevertheless commune with each other in spirit, is something a man might imagine is happening with a woman that he has just seen strip almost completely naked before she jumped in a pond. But in real life, once they get to the point that they can literally speak the same language, he may not like what he hears, as when he heard his girlfriend yelling at his brother from the bedroom that she was naked and ready for sex. And lest we forget, there was undoubtedly a time when Jamie and his girlfriend loved each other very much and fancied they were soulmates. It is part of the illusion of love that we dismiss the disappointments of a previous passion, saying that time didn’t count because it wasn’t true love. We blame the person we loved, or we blame ourselves for being foolish, but we never seem to blame the real culprit, which is love itself.
The story that bothers me the most, however, is the one in which Daniel talks Sam into telling Joanna how he feels. It is one thing for a man to suppose that all he needs to do is tell a woman he loves her, and all will be well, but I really cringe when a parent talks a child into doing something like that. It would have been well within the realm of the possible for Joanna to react negatively to Sam’s telling her that he loved her, because she thought he was a dork. And as children have less tact than adults, she might have expressed her contempt for him without reservation.
It is the purpose of love to get us to make sacrifices for other people. So, even when it’s working, it’s working against us. Often as not the sacrifices are small, and we are rewarded with the pleasures love affords us. But this movie is sentimental about those sacrifices even when they become excessive, saying that love is worth it even when our own happiness is price that must be paid —provided it is the woman who makes the sacrifice, of course.
When Harry finds out that Mia, his new secretary, wants to have sex with him, provided he buys her an expensive present for Christmas, he decides to get her a solid gold necklace. He tries to buy it on the sly while shopping with his wife Karen (Emma Thompson) in a department store, but the sale is interrupted when she finishes her shopping and finds him at the jewelry counter, where he pretends he was just looking around. She laughs it off, saying that her expectations are not so high as to think he would buy her jewelry after all their years of marriage. On another day, he returns by himself, buys the necklace, and puts it in his coat pocket. When he gets home, Karen feels something in his coat as she hangs it up. She finds the box, opens it, and concludes that it is a present for her. When Christmas arrives, and they open their presents, hers turns out to be just a CD. She is heartbroken and later confronts him over it. He admits he was a fool, and she says he has made a fool of her, and that life will always be a little worse from that point on if she stays with him, which she does.
Realistically, a man would have to be a fool to try to buy a necklace for his mistress while shopping with his wife. Even buying the necklace when he was by himself would be risky. A jeweler I used to know said that one night he was waiting on a customer who was buying a diamond necklace, when suddenly a woman walked up to him and said, “Hi George. Are you getting that for Emily?” He said that he was, and the woman assured him that his wife would love it. When she left, the customer turned to the jeweler and said, “I guess I’ll need to buy two of them now.” In fact, it was just this situation that inspired the jeweler to have Wednesday nights at his store be for men only, so that neither wives nor friends of wives would know about such surreptitious purchases. In any event, said purchases would be kept at the office, not brought home for the wives to discover them.
The important thing, however, is the theme of the woman sacrificing her happiness for the sake of others, presumably for the children in this case, a feature not uncommon in Hollywood melodramas. When Karen confronts Harry, letting him know about the necklace, she asks him what he would do if he were a married woman in her situation. Would he wait to find out if the husband just gave a woman a necklace, or whether it involved sex, or whether it involved love? Harry does not answer that question, but the answer is obvious. In a movie, a woman is supposed to forgive her husband. The more interesting question she might have asked is what he would do if he found out his wife had given a man an expensive present, wondering whether it also involved sex, or even love.
A man might make a sacrifice in a movie, but it is typically on a grand scale, such as that of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. But it is women that sacrifice their own happiness in the movies for domestic reasons, something that men almost never do. And while the movie did not have Karen ask Harry what he would do if his wife were cheating on him, the movie answers that question nevertheless in the story about Jamie. He certainly did not forgive his girlfriend when he found out that she was cheating on him. Of course, the movie avoided a completely equivalent situation, one in which they were married with children. In fact, by not even giving his girlfriend a name, the movie made her a nonperson, allowing Jamie to easily rid himself of her. And this absence of a name was no mere consequence of the small role she had. When Jamie finds his brother in his home, he asks, “The lady of the house let you in, did she?” What an interesting locution! How easy it would have been for him ask, “Judy let you in, did she?” A special effort was made to avoid giving her a name. Nevertheless, even if she had a name, and even if they had been married with children, it is unlikely he would have remained married to her. Had he forgiven her and stayed with her, he would have been despised as a cuckold. But when a woman forgives her husband in a movie, making a sacrifice for the sake of the family, it is sentimentalized to the point that her staying with him is portrayed as something noble and fine.
The incipient relationship between Sarah and Karl, referred to in the previous section, is interrupted by her violent, psychotic brother Michael, who keeps calling her on the phone from the insane asylum. Later on in the movie, with all hope of finding happiness with Karl gone, we see Sarah visiting her brother, giving him a big hug. The idea, you see, is that her love for her brother is what is truly important. But once again, we have a story about a woman who nobly sacrifices her happiness for someone else. Those that made this movie knew better than to have it be a man who was sacrificing his love life to take care of an institutionalized relative. The second time Sarah’s brother calls while she and Karl are trying to have sex, Karl suggests not answering it because it won’t make her brother’s situation any better. But she answers anyway, spoiling the mood for good. We gather that if Karl had been the one with that brother, he would have visited him from time to time, but he would have lived his own life as well, with the phone turned off when he didn’t feel like being bothered. We feel sorry for Sarah, but we are supposed to admire her for her sacrifice. But had Karl allowed phone calls from his brother to take precedence over everything else, including his love for Sarah, would not the audience have despised him a little for that, regarding him as weak?
There are no homosexuals in this movie, but the subject keeps coming up in ways that seem strange. When it does, the movie dares us to object. We would not hesitate to object if the situations were heterosexual in nature. But as it is, we say nothing, lest we be accused of homophobia.
For example, there is a photograph of four naked men, seen from behind, that the movie insists on repeatedly showing us. As feminist critics have pointed out, art in general, and movies in particular, are oriented around the male gaze. If we see a photograph of a beautiful, naked woman, we naturally regard it in terms of how a heterosexual male would react to it. He would enjoy the view, of course. In a similar manner, a picture of a naked man and a naked woman would please the straight male as well, as he vicariously contemplates the idea of their having sex. But a picture of naked men by themselves is disturbing to the male gaze, as it immediately suggests homosexuality.
Think of your typical pornographic movie. It will have lots of scenes of naked men and women having sex. And it will usually have at least one scene of two naked women having sex. The male gaze approves of this, because it gets to enjoy twice as much female flesh. But you will never see in such a movie two naked men having sex. That belongs in the subgenre of homosexual pornography, because that is not what the male heterosexual wants to see.
So, from the point of view of the male gaze, a photograph of four naked men is homosexual in nature.
Now, if a movie kept showing us a photograph of four naked women from behind over and over again, we would have no trouble saying, “Why does the movie keep showing us this?” But as it is four naked men, with its homosexual implications, we say nothing.
Billy Mack, a has-been rock star who has made an unexpectedly successful comeback, decides he would like to spend Christmas with his manager, Joe, telling him he’s the love of his life. Joe makes a nervous joke about Billy being gay when he says this, the kind of joke you make when you are not sure what the truth is. Joe offers to shake hands, but Billy wants a big hug. Then he suggests they watch porn together. I suppose we are to assume it is heterosexual porn, thereby removing the possibility of a homosexual relationship between the two after it was ambiguously suggested. The movie dares us to object to this scene.
But let’s assume instead that Joe was Josephine. Billy Mack’s telling Josephine that she was the love of his life would make for an awkward scene, even though the element of homosexuality would not be present, owing in part to the ambiguity of the word “love,” and owing in part to the fact that the love expressed by Billy, however understood, might not be mutual, especially when Billy insisted on a hug. I won’t go so far as to imagine, as part of this change of gender, that Billy would then suggest to Josephine that they watch porn. But that aside, if we wanted to say that the scene made us feel uneasy, we would have no problem doing so. But in the actual scene with Joe, anyone who felt uncomfortable watching it would probably keep that to himself.
At the wedding reception of Peter and Juliet, Sarah can tell that Mark seems a little down, so she asks him, “Do you love him?” Now, if she had asked, “Do you love her?” we would not hesitate to express our disapproval. Asking a man at a wedding reception if he is in love with the bride of his best friend simply is not done. Her coming right out with a question like that would have been inappropriate because it was none of her business. And we would have had no trouble saying so. But since she asked him if he was in love with Peter, the movie is once again daring us to object. And it might not be so bad if Peter were openly gay, but he is not, for the simple reason that he is not gay in any sense. Her asking him that question is supposed to be justified because she thought he might need someone to talk to about it. In other words, this dovetails with the communication theme discussed above. But being willing to listen to a close friend who needs to talk is one thing, and suggesting something personal like that to a casual acquaintance is something else again. I mean, just because Mark arranged for male prostitutes to be at Peter’s stag party, that is no reason for Sarah to jump to any conclusions. Of course, as noted above, right after Sarah has the impertinence to ask Mark if he is in love with Peter, Harry, who is her boss, has the impertinence to ask her how long she has been in love with Karl. There sure are a lot of nosy people in this movie.
Daniel suggests that Sam is a bit young to be in love, since he is only eleven years old. But Daniel humors him when Sam insists that he is not too young. Fine. But then, when he starts to ask Sam if the feeling is reciprocated, he begins by saying, “And what does she…,” hesitates, adds the word “he” as a possibility, and then completes the question, “…feel about you?”
Now, while this movie dares us to find anything wrong with Daniel’s tentative use of the word “he,” we might note that the movie itself did not dare for it to be a “he”: for Sam to say he is in love with another little boy; for Daniel to encourage him to tell that boy how he feels about him, or he’ll always regret it; for Sam to tell the boy at the airport that he loves him; and for the boy to chase after Sam and kiss him. The movie presents itself as being ever so enlightened by flirting with a pronoun, and then retreats to the safety of a little girl.
We have reached the point that we now need a new term, homophobia-phobia, the fear of being accused of homophobia. The movie dares the people in the audience to express any misgivings about the scenes discussed above, and so great is their homophobia-phobia that few are willing to do so.
This movie won a lot of awards, and it was a box-office success. A lot of people really liked it, critics included. I suppose they agree with the movie that love is such a wonderful thing that it is worth taking any risk, making any sacrifice. But it’s not.