The internet recently exploded in debate over the film Love Actually….again. Since it is one of my favorite films of all time and since I watch it every year as a holiday tradition, I know the film quite well. I have watched it at least once a year (with one exception) since I walked out of the cinema floating on a cloud of joy in 2003.
Although there several articles about Love Actually have been published in the past few years, and regurgitated every Christmas, I’ll mostly be responding to Orr’s “Love Actually Is the Least Romantic Film of All Time.” Others have responded to Orr’s piece, like Ben Dreyfuss’s “Why ‘Love Actually’ Matters” in Mother Jones and Orr’s Atlantic colleague Emma Green’s intelligent response that explores C. S. Lewis’s four types of love in “I Will Not Be Ashamed of Loving Love Actually.“
First, let’s briefly define the word “romance” and “romantic.” Although not an appropriate resource for academic or serious work of any kind, I like Wikipedia‘s definition:
Romance or romantic usually refers to Romance (love), love emphasizing emotion over libido.
It goes on to define Romantic Film as “love stories…that focus on passion, emotion, and the affectionate romantic involvement of the main characters.” Dictionary.com defines “romance” and “romantic” in many ways, some referring back to the other, but here are a few:
a baseless, made-up story, usually full of exaggeration or fanciful invention
fanciful; impractical; unrealistic:
imbued with or dominated by idealism, a desire for adventure, chivalry, etc.
characterized by a preoccupation with love or by the idealizing of love or one’s beloved
displaying or expressing love or strong affection.
ardent; passionate; fervent.
Depending on the definition he’s using, perhaps Orr is correct, in the title of his piece at least. Perhaps Love Actually isn’t “romantic,” but that isn’t really the bulk of his premise. If this were merely arguing over semantics and Orr’s failure to define his terms clearly, I wouldn’t have felt the need to respond. Although one might not categorize it as “romantic,” it is absolutely not “anti-romantic,” as he asserts in the following:
So take the film on its own titular terms. What does Love Actually tell us about love, actually? Well, I think it tells us a number of things, most of them wrong and a few of them appalling…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…
the bulk of the film—I think it offers up at least three disturbing lessons about love. First, that love is overwhelmingly a product of physical attraction and requires virtually no verbal communication or intellectual/emotional affinity of any kind. Second, that the principal barrier to consummating a relationship is mustering the nerve to say “I love you”—preferably with some grand gesture—and that once you manage that, you’re basically on the fast track to nuptial bliss. And third, that any actual obstacle to romantic fulfillment, however surmountable, is not worth the effort it would require to overcome.
This assertion tells me that author (to quote the poignant Joni Mitchell song prominent in the film) “really don’t know love at all.” The fact Orr sees the film this way saddens my heart, and I pity him for it. Appalling and wrong? Far from it. In fact, I think the film captures the very essence of many different forms of love, human relationships, and the human condition.
After the pity, bewilderment sets in. The three lessons on love Orr sees is so far removed from what the film actually shows that I find it difficult to know where to begin. Basically, Orr says the Love Actually teaches its viewers that (1) love is based mostly in physical attraction without the need for intellectual or emotional communication or connection, (2) the way to get laid is to work up the courage to say “I love you,” and (3) love isn’t worth the work to overcome even the most “surmountable” obstacles.
Only one subplot is focused on the search for love based mostly on physical attraction, and I’ll get to that near the end. Not a single person consummates their relationship because they worked up the nerve to say “I love you” in some grand gesture. The grandest gesture and iconic scene between Andrew Lincoln and Keira Knightley, shown left, doesn’t end in consummation. In fact, there was never a pursuit for love between them before that scene and certainly not after. And with all the emphasis I can possibly muster, if anything, Love Actually shows that love is most certainly worth it.
This film is about hope. It’s about loss and pain and sacrifice. It’s about fear and desperation. It’s about complications. It’s about making horrible mistakes and difficult decisions out of care and selflessness and courage. It’s about surviving.
Which means, actually, it’s about love. Romantic love, sure, but also all forms of love. Here is a summary of the stories as I see them:
A man betrayed by his brother, who goes to another country just to pick up the pieces of his broken heart and shattered life, falls in love with the woman out of mutual care and respect, of being comfortable together. Two people who think the same, who understand each other, even though they don’t understand the other’s language.
A woman so dedicated to her brother she sacrifices her own life to care for him, giving up a chance to be with the man she’s been infatuated with for years. Although he understands that “Life is full of interruptions and complications,” she knows she can’t truly invest in a romantic relationship and be there for her schizophrenic brother at the same time.
A man surviving his wife’s death by helping his stepson navigate a budding love life, urging him to take a chance and live in the moment to minimize regrets. Perhaps he’s projecting his own regrets of his lost love and all the time he’ll never have with his late wife, determined his stepson will live fully, all while deepening their relationship and healing their grief.
An old, has-been rock star who has pissed his life away and finds the only real, lasting relationship he has ever had is with his manager. He realizes this at the end and leaves a party with Elton John to be a “rock ‘n roll loser” to get “drunk with his fat manager,” turning his back on the shallow, meaningless connections based on his fleeting success and embracing the most invested, loyal, and constant relationship of his life.
A man so desperately in love with his best friend’s wife, that he does everything he can to deny his feelings and stay out of their way, even if it means being cold to her for “self preservation.” When she discovers his true feelings, he fights within himself before deciding to express himself completely to her and then let it go, sacrificing his heart for her happiness and his friendship.
A woman who thinks so little of herself that she feels her only worth is between her legs, she must seduce a married man in order to feel worthwhile. That married man stereotypically, in his midlife crisis, succumbs to her, even if just by a gesture. His wife, so busy taking care of everyone else that she no longer takes care of herself, and neither does anyone else.
A couple who meet in the most awkward of situations, as stand-ins for a sex scene, really fall in love through their conversation and getting to know one another, not (ironically) through sexual attraction. Then find it even more awkward when it comes to their first real kiss.
A powerful man, used to yes-men and appropriate, proper, professional behavior by everyone around him, becomes intrigued by the aide with a potty mouth, and later is inspired to stand up to the most powerful man (bully) in the world because he insulted her honor by objectifying and propositioning her. Although so many comment on her thighs and weight and ass, even her parents, he sees her as a person, not a collection of parts, and loves her for who she is, not how she looks.
In fact, the only person in the entire film who’s search for love is based on physical appearance is Colin, the bloke with “the big knob,” looking for any willing warm body with which to have sex. He, and the American President with his inappropriate behavior and comment about Natalie’s “pipes,” are the only two characters focused mostly on physical attraction at all. Colin is the only one “looking for love,” and is used as a comic relief in the film. Both of these characters embody a social critique of the American culture and government. It’s the Americans who are portrayed as incredibly shallow, much as we portray ourselves in RomComs, SitComs, and in all popular culture, actually. It’s the Americans who are basing their search for love on trivial matters such as a foreign accent or appearance.
So, no. It’s not a romantic film. It’s not about some narcissistic fantasy of perfect love, which apparently is how Orr views love. It’s not some fairy tale RomCom with a get-lose-get girl plot ending happily ever after, or for happily for now.
It’s about human beings fumbling and hurting and hoping and losing. It’s about sacrifice and pain and regret. It’s about fear and rejection and vulnerabilities and longing. It’s about real relationships with all their complications and doubt and confusion.
It’s about Love, Actually.