Is Love Actually not actually that romantic?

A still from <i>Love Actually</i>, starring Bill Nighy.

A still from Love Actually, starring Bill Nighy.

If you take your holiday cues solely from the geniuses what bring us the non-ratings programming at this time of the year, ‘tis not, as it turns out, the season to be jolly, but in fact the season to watch Love Actually.

The multi-star “romantic” “comedy” does the rounds with worrying frequency at this time of the year, no matter what country you find yourself in, because sometime in the intervening ten years between 2013 and its original release, the film has apparently overtaken It’s A Wonderful Life and Die Hard as “official Christmas movie #1”.

The problem is that - as anyone who’s recently revisited Richard Curtis’ take on Robert Altman by way of Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr Good Enough will tell you - Love Actually is, actually, pretty miserable.

I’m not alone in thinking this: over at The Atlantic this week, Christopher Orr astutely observes - on the tenth anniversary of the film’s release - that Love Actually “is not, in fact, a holiday-season movie in any meaningful sense [...] But Love Actually is exceptional in that it is not merely, like so many other entries in the genre, unromantic. Rather, it is emphatically, almost shockingly, anti-romantic.”

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Over at The AV Club, Sonya Saraiya is far more generous when she declares that Love Actually “overflows with a spirit of joy that arises equally from gags with porn stand-ins and political meetings with the prime minister”. (And, presumably, the evergreen joy that comes from watching Emma Thompson stifle sobs to the tune of Joni Mitchell when she discovers her husband’s infidelity AT CHRISTMAS.)

The weirdest thing about Love Actually is not the way it’s muscled itself into the Christmas Classics pantheon, but the profound sense of emptiness it leaves you with.

And don’t worry, I’ve tried to love Love Actually: most recently I actually paid to rent it on iTunes. Every time I watch it, it’s out of some vain hope that I had misremembered  it ; “It’s Love Actually!” I think as I sit down in front of the box. “This will cheer me up!” Sure, if you also find yourself cheered by that animal lib ad with Chrissie Hynde wailing I’ll Stand By You over the top. 

Once upon a time, love meant - in a “soft focus sunset poster” context - never having to say you’re sorry. In the Love Actually world, love means, at various times, never having to bother getting to know somebody before you declare them to be The One (Liam Neeson’s son and his school love interest; Laura Linney and mysterious hottie Rodrigo Santoro), never having to respect your best friend’s marriage (Walking Dead bloke and Keira Knightley), never having to try (odious British backpacker’s trip to Poon Tang County, Wisconsin), and so on. 

As Orr puts it, “The fundamental problem with Love Actually is that it presents romance as either absurdly easy—something that strikes you like a thunderclap and requires only a single grand gesture in order to be fulfilled—or all but impossible. Notably absent is the idea that love might ever be worth a little sustained effort: some mutual exploration and discovery, a bit of care and nurture, maybe even the overcoming of an obstacle or two.”

With that in mind, I’ve cobbled together a list of films that - despite not bearing Christmas decorations, Mariah Carey songs, or, in some cases, the ‘romantic comedy’ label - offer far more romantic and far more authentic impressions of love than Love Actually. Hit the gallery for your viewing pleasure.

Oh and for the record, I’ve exited Heathrow Airport’s arrivals gate - otherwise known as the film’s book-ending proof that love, actually, is all around - twice, and all I saw was a whole lot of arguments over who’d booked the taxi. 

18 comments

  • Why is Love Actually attracting so much hatred this year? It's just a movie - a fictional one at that. Most multi-plot films do generalise or fall flat because they don't dedicate as much screen time to each character. That being said, I think this film is lovely and gives us a snapshot into different kinds of love - new, old, faded, lost. I really like the juxtaposition of the different kinds of love. Yes, it's far fetched, and yes, some of the stories are less savoury than others, but does that mean that it should be shot down and compared with movies just because it might not be as romantic as some people think it should be?

    At the end of the day, if you like watching Love Actually, then watch it. If you don't, avoid it. I just hate the way that people are pointing out the flaws and trying to detract from other people's enjoyment. I don't feel empty at the end, I feel hopeful.

    Commenter
    Maddie
    Date and time
    December 11, 2013, 10:09AM
    • RomComs are wish-fulfillment fantasies - that something we desperately crave can (WILL!) happen in an instant and life will be perfect everafter with our perfect beautiful partner (despite not actually being perfect and beautiful ourselves).
      Feel free to opt yourself out of that last generalisation if you think you are...
      Think of how people really get together in real life.
      Chance alone brings almost all people into each other's orbit but we like to delude ourselves with constructs like fate or meant-to-be. People will go to great lengths to establish an illusion of control where there is actually none - because to admit we met our partners by sheer luck sneaks in a suspicion that it it might not be the 'real thing'.
      I've once read romance described as a co-operative game of mutual face-saving to avoid just stating the obvious 'I desire you' - out of fear the sentiment won't be returned. (sorry forgot the author to attribute)
      If I sound like I'm desperate to find love - yes, guilty as charged...
      But who isn't?

      Commenter
      gabe
      Location
      fitz
      Date and time
      December 11, 2013, 10:46AM
      • “...Notably absent is the idea that love might ever be worth a little sustained effort: some mutual exploration and discovery, a bit of care and nurture, maybe even the overcoming of an obstacle or two.”

        How do you explain the reconciliation between the Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman characters then? I would say that there would be some degree of sustained effort, and overcoming obstacles, for these characters to remain in the marriage (as implied by the Heathrow arrivals scene at the end of the movie).

        Commenter
        miska_chick
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        December 11, 2013, 12:00PM
        • I think the problem is it's not clear whether or not they *have* reconciled; the two readings of that story thread seem to be that either they reconcile, but the marriage is essentially dead, or they haven't reconciled.

          Commenter
          Clem Bastow
          Date and time
          December 11, 2013, 12:17PM
        • I always interpreted that scene (andthere are multiple possible interpretations of it) as being one of those moments when two divorced parents come together and put on a polite face for the sake of the family at some special occasion. It reminds me of a lot of childhood birthday parties for my siblings and I.

          Commenter
          Hurrow
          Date and time
          December 11, 2013, 12:53PM
        • My interpretation of that scene is very much that they have reconciled but that it's early days. Things are still fragile. I think after infidelity, a couple who have agreed to work through the problem has committed to the effort and the results aren't there yet. It takes time. I see they are making every effort and that the wounds are not yet healed.

          Commenter
          Helen
          Date and time
          December 11, 2013, 2:46PM
      • I always thought the whole point of it being called "Love ACTUALLY" was because even though it is sold as a romantic comedy, it actually is meant to show how unromantic love ACTUALLY is...
        Actually I could be wrong...

        Commenter
        Demo
        Date and time
        December 11, 2013, 1:04PM
        • I'm pretty sure that I read recently that Richard Curtis never intended it to be a "Christmas Movie" as such, it's just a movie that had Christmas in it. Having said that I've always enjoyed it, the melancholy bits are what makes it so lovely.

          Commenter
          Anita
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          December 11, 2013, 1:39PM
          • I don't care what you say, the love story between Colin Firth's character Jamie, and Aurelia, his Portugese house cleaner, is romantic and it gets me every time. How they both can't communicate, but seem to anyway, and the papers flying into the water and then they learn to speak eachother's language...and he goes and proposes...and..and..and tears! Yes, I watched it just two nights ago. And although the film has been categorised as a "romantic comedy" because it seems like all films have to be pigeonholed in somewhere, the title is still 'Love Actually'...not Romance Actually. Love comes and goes in different forms, and I think the film shows this through its interconnecting tales. Some a bit meloncholly and some a delight. I regard it essentially as a Christmas time popcorn flick and try not to get too involved (except for the Jamie and Aurelia story).

            Commenter
            Ange
            Date and time
            December 11, 2013, 3:27PM
            • Clem

              A very ordinary film. Liam Neeson's son has the most evil eyes. I kept waiting for him to kill someone the first time I saw it.

              How anyone could put this up against the Frank Capra masterpiece is really unbelievable..
              I still cry at the end of it.

              Commenter
              Toby
              Location
              Melb
              Date and time
              December 11, 2013, 6:14PM

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