not in our stars, but in ourselves
As often happens at this time of year, I watched Love Actually (2003) the other day. Even when it came out, and I was a starry-eyed teenager, I was never under any delusions of its grandeur as a film. It’s silly. It’s cheesy. It’s formulaic. It is absolutely the cinematic equivalent of Christmas music: something simple and reliable and unendurable at any other time of year – but seemingly necessary from Black Friday to Boxing Day. So I would watch it, and enjoy it I guess, year after year.
This year, it struck me differently.
There have been more than a few people in this anniversary year noting how Love Actually isn’t, actually, very much in favor of love. Not real love, certainly. Let’s run through the various plot strands, shall we? In order of how enjoyable they are:
Billy Mack and his manager, Joe
Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) is a washed up former rock star trying to make a lot of money and regain relevance by remaking one of his old songs as an insufferable Christmas song. The only person in his life who cares about him is his long-suffering manager, Joe (Gregor Fisher). He realizes this at the end of the film and suggests that they get drunk and watch porn. Aww.
David and Natalie
David (Hugh Grant) is the newly elected prime minister of Great Britain. On his first day at Number 10, he is utterly charmed by one of his new staffers, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). He stands up to the lecherous president of the United States (Billy Bob Thornton) for her sake. They make out at a children’s Christmas Pageant. Aww.
John and Judy
John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) meet on a film set while they’re standing in for actors during a hardcore sex scene. They like talking to each other and start dating. They are very shy and sweet. Aww.
Harry and Karen
Harry (Alan Rickman) is married to Karen (Emma Thompson). She is lovely, funny, caring, and the primary caretaker of their two kids. He isn’t bad or anything, but his secretary, Mia (Heike Makatsch), literally spreads her legs when he walks past her desk. He buys a fancy necklace for her for Christmas, and buys Karen a fucking CD. Karen finds out. Harry feels bad. Aww.
Mark and Juliet – oh, and Peter too
Mark (Andrew Lincoln) is best friends with Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor). At the beginning of the film, Peter marries Juliet (Keira Knightley). Mark is extremely standoffish with Juliet, but then she realizes it’s because he’s in love with her. She kisses him when he confesses all. Aww.
Daniel and Sam
Daniel (Liam Neeson) is a new widower. His stepson, Sam (Thomas Sangster), seems to be deep in mourning for the loss of his mother – but it turns out that Sam just has a huge crush on one of his classmates. Daniel helps him scheme a way to win her heart. Aww.
Jamie and Aurelia
Jamie (Colin Firth) has just been cuckolded by his long-time girlfriend or wife or whatever – she was cheating on him with his brother. Ouch. So he goes to some sort of country retreat in France or somewhere to work on a novel, as you do, and he develops a big fat crush on his hot Portuguese maid, Aurelia (Lucia Moniz). Neither of them understands the other’s language, but they understand the language of looooooooooove. Aww.
Karl and Sarah
Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) is a hot hot hottie who works with Sarah (Laura Linney), who has had a big fat crush on him since half an hour after she started working there. She finally gets him to come home with her after the company Christmas party, and they make out for about two minutes before her special-needs brother calls her and effectively cockblocks her. She leaves Karl and his booze boner to go hang out with her brother at his care home. Aww.
Colin and Wisconsin women
Colin (Kris Marshall) is a creep who can’t get a date with any women in London, so he decides that America is the place for him. For some reason, he decides to go to Wisconsin. There, his British accent catches the attention of a bunch of hotties (namely, Ivana Milicevic, January Jones, Elisha Cuthbert, and Shannon Elizabeth) who invite him to stay at their house and sleep in their bed. Aww.
Okay. I mean, first and foremost, none of the sexually motivated relationships here are motivated by actual love. Maybe it will bloom later on, but we don’t see any of it at any point in the movie. We just see prettier-than-average people developing crushes on each other, and having Feelings (while soulful oboe music plays for most of them), and not really learning anything about each other or falling in love with the other person as a person or anything that real love is based on. Not that the film is overly concerned with such things. It’s Christmas music. It’s tinsel. Whatever.
But here’s what was grinding my gears when I watched it this most recent time: it is resolutely anti-feminist and anti-woman. The poor female characters in this mess are all victims (Karen and Sarah), objects (Natalie, Judy somewhat, Juliet, Aurelia, and the women of Wisconsin), or whores (Mia).
Do you see what I mean? The women in this movie are not real people. They are martyrs and symbols and sluts – cut-outs, cartoons, flat rather than rounded characters. Compare that to the men. Even though the movie is pretty rigidly formulaic, the men are all quite distinct individuals. Not especially rounded, perhaps, but possessing inner lives that motivate their actions. You can probably relate to Mark’s voluptuously unfulfilled passion for Juliet. You have no idea what Juliet feels about either of the men who love her, actually.
As I said above, I don’t mind that the movie is formulaic. I don’t mind that it’s not really about love. Very few movies are – and remarkably few of them are romantic comedies. Trust me, I ain’t even mad about that. But I am maddened by, and tired of, movies written and directed by men in which the women aren’t real human beings. If a woman is a victim, let me understand why. If she is the object of someone’s affection, let me see what it is in her that really catches his eye and his heart and his mind. If she is in love with someone, let me know what it is in her soul that finds harmony in his. If she is a calculating manipulator, let me figure out what it is that she wants and why she thinks this is how she’ll get it. Just don’t try to sell me this snake oil.