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.
Films that are unintentionally more romantic than Love Actually
Tootsie - In Sydney Pollack’s stone-cold comedy classic, Dustin Hoffman’s Michael (dressed as Dorothy) falls in love with Jessica Lange’s Julie because she’s a complex woman and a single mother, not in spite of that or simply because he has a vague idea that she’s The One.
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.”
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.