Why Love Actually is not the heartwarming romcom you’re remembering
Even on its release there were some grumblings about Curtis’ privileging of grand romantic gestures over character development. But even if it’s shown incredible sticking power, the film also dated rapidly. Increasingly, internet critiques recognise what a creepy version of romance it offers (most notably, Jezebel’s hilariously shouty take-down).
Because all the power and agency belongs to the male characters, while women – often their younger employees – are silent, appreciative, pretty things. The ones who have any cares or responsibilities beyond pleasing men seem to get punished, missing out on love and having to listen to Joni Mitchell.
It also seems astonishingly heteronormative: nine stories, all straight. Same-sex romance is gently mocked, but never made visible or celebrated (a lesbian scene was filmed, but cut). Obviously everyone hopes that the reunion will see ageing rock star Billy Mack and his devoted manager finally getting together. I’d bet on the lack of gay narratives being addressed in some way, at least.
What about the representation of women? We can but hope. Obviously, Love Actually is hardly the only film to present female characters as pure wish fulfilment. The industry has always been dominated by men. Most of the movies we watch are filmed from the point-of-view of the men, with women positioned as objects of desire to be acquired. But for such a beloved, really-not-that-old movie, Love Actually feels particularly egregious, stuffed with examples of passive women serving men’s needs and desires.
So, in an act of cold-hearted cynicism against the overly optimistic, saccharine romcom, here are all the ways the relationships in Love Actually make for really uncomfortable viewing.
Mark and Juliet
The sort of man who hires unwelcome “surprise” sex workers for his mate’s stag do is perhaps not a man with a vast well of emotional intelligence. But Mark – played by Andrew Lincoln – develops into a full-on creep. Secretly in love with his best friend’s fiancé (Keira Knightley), he films only her at the wedding. Often in extreme close-up, and certainly not saying anything: just a pretty face, over and over again. This wank tape is an almost comically blatant example of the male gaze in cinema: the camera literally frames his lust, the viewer presented Knightley through his adoring eyes. But it also seems to visually convey something about male control – he’s cropping her, containing her, imposing limits on the terrifying object of desire.
Because Mark is scared: scared of how much he likes Juliet. And yet he doesn’t even know her. Juliet says “but you never talk to me ... you don’t like me.” Mark has put her on a pedestal entirely because of the way she looks, with no regards to her personality or intellect. Maybe if he’d bothered to chat with her, he would have realised they had irreconcilably different viewpoints about the war in Iraq or the new Radiohead album or whatever else people talked about in 2003, and could have moved on.
Instead, we get the most famous scene of the film: Mark turns up to declare his love via the medium of giant hand-written signs, because it’s Christmas and we tell the truth at Christmas. Do we? Isn’t it the time of little white ‘I love it, you shouldn’t have’ lies? And this, after all, his best mate’s wife he’s calling “perfect”. Keep it under your Santa hat, Mark.
Sam and Joanna
Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is only a kid, but he’s totally, tragically in love with Joanna (Olivia Olson), the coolest girl in the school. She doesn’t even know he exists. But you’re never too young to start to learn how to “make” a girl like you. “I have a plan,” he declares. “Girls love musicians.” So he decides to learn to play the drums.
This plot is basically a mini-me Mark and Juliet. Why not try talking to her instead of just admiring her from afar? Maybe conversation would be better than pretending to like playing music to trick them into fancying you? To thine own self be true, little Sam.
But We love it at BSR.... So There, Happy Xmas...x