I actually love “Love, Actually” (dir. Richard Curtis 2003). Generally, I don’t care much for films, and only manage to see three or four per year, most of those being disappointments if they were made past 1955 or were not directed by auteurs such as Tarkovsky or Malick. This film though, unexpectedly, cut me to the quick. I wept for joy in the parking lot where I first saw it, and have watched it every other year or so since, at Christmas. So I’m delighted to hear that many others have done the same, and that there’s such a fun, dynamic conversation this week about a silly romantic comedy from ten years ago, that is being called #LoveActuallyWars, engaging writers from the MSNBC, Huffington Post and many others.
The best round in the fight (and perhaps the final) is from the consistently-intelligent Christopher Orr (@OrrChris) over at The Atlantic. His piece, “Love Actually is the Least Romantic Film of All Time,” is notable not only for its wit and charmingly incredulous tone, but because, though he’s ostensibly picking nit about a decade-old film that in no way aspires to high-art status, he’s actually talking about some pretty important concepts. I want to commend those concepts, and offer a corrective to Orr’s reading.
First, I think it’s wonderful that Orr challenges the film’s message. Viewers of any art should put their fists up a bit, and for the most part, American movie-goers (still more music fans) stand about with their gloves at their sides, taking anything that comes on the proverbial chin. Orr writes that “Love, Actually” preaches
the elevation of physical attraction over any of the other factors typically associated with romantic compatibility: similar likes and dislikes, overlapping senses of humor, shared values, what have you.
And he goes on to illustrate how this is true for each of the 9 couples in the film. There are disturbing implications here, and Orr’s right, it’s tough to see them because what:
- the actors are so pretty?
- the music so winning?
- the cuts are so fast?
However it is, the film “somehow manages to present the idea,” not only that it’s acceptable, but “that it’s romantic to go behind a friend’s back to ostentatiously declare your everlasting love for his wife,” which is pretty screwed up. Meanwhile, Orr argues (correctly) that love takes work, that relationships and even attractions are built at least as much on conversation as on physicality and neuro-chemicals, which I also appreciate.
Second—though, again, this particular example doesn’t matter in any real sense— I appreciate that this whole discussion tries to put the brakes on a rapid expansion of the canon. We’re talking about the canon of Classic Holiday Movies, and Orr is fighting to keep “Love, Actually” out. It happens that I include it among my favorite holiday films, and I think that Orr overstates a point or two, but I appreciate that he thinks it matters how we bandy about the term “classic,” and that he treats the idea of a canon as a helpful limitation rather than an oppressive limitation of “voice” (ugh!) on behalf of an elite. One can only watch so many films after all, an Orr wants only the best included, which, as someone who works in historical literature, I appreciate. Again, it happens that the poets I most admire are not in said canon, but I think the idea is still helpful and the work of limiting it, noble.
About that point or two: I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that "Love, Actually" is a British film. It is a very British film, actually, featuring an all but entirely British cast (which accounts for some of their uniform excellence) and it takes great pains to be located: it opens and closes on Heathrow airport, features side characters in cameos like Mr. Bean, is shot all over London, and climaxes (one of several) on a patriotic speech about the greatness of British culture. All of these I appreciate, being an Anglophile. Reading the film as not about “Love” and how it comes about in our day, but as being about the difficulty of expression of feelings in modern Britain changes it for me.
Though it requires leaning heavily on stereotypes (which are, in my own experience, true) about British people generally, such a reading explains a few of Orr’s complaints. For example, Orr charges that, in the film, “the principal barrier to consummating a relationship is mustering the nerve to say 'I love you,'” which he calls “disturbing.” In America, he’s right. We have no problem talking about our feelings, and make the private public with flippancy. In Britain, this is less so. A “relationship” will often ignite, and smolder for ages before anything “gets said” about it. Witness Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, (whose film version also features Emma Thomson). One can’t say the characters didn’t have an intellectual romance just because they never really spoke on a direct emotional level. Or Romeo and Juliet, who look like a case of love at first sight until we notice that Juliet finishes Romeo’s poem, at their first verbal exchange, which means that though he’s known her for all of five minutes, she’s the one he’s been waiting for; an intellectual companion who
- cares about poetry like he does
- knows him well enough to pick up on the innuendo of his language game
- is playful and risky enough to smack to linguistic missile back over the net
She may also be hot, but she isn’t only hot. Other examples abound, but it isn’t true, as Orr claims, that the characters in "Love, Actually" love each other without knowing anything about one another. Finding the words to discuss one’s feelings through British reticence is rather a barrier, and makes up some of the “work” that Orr finds lacking in these relationships. Hence the title: “Love, Actually,” is a verbal stumble, a pause meant to signal a person’s gathering herself up to make the grand gesture that such an admission actually, sometimes is.