It’s the purpose of Christmas, in my opinion, to poke a thermometer into the thick of our lives and stare. Each year during the holidays we’re asked to be at our most vulnerable, to look about our person with wide, wobbling eyes and ask ‘who loves me?’. Santa Claus, Michael Bublé and flammable pudding are all the hand that waves about to distract us from the pain of this exposure.
It begins in sentiment, a rogue display of chocolate shaped like a family of reindeer or a viral ad about the friendship between a bear and a rabbit scored with Lily Allen’s cover of Somewhere only we know. It ends in the bathroom at a work Christmas party, or in a hushed promise to never speak to ‘those people’ again (your parents).
I don’t wonder why suicide rates go up during the holidays, I understand that there is sometimes not enough tinsel in the world to distract us from a cold turkey, or an empty room. I do wonder why writer/director Richard Curtis dedicated an entire film to the sweaty brow of Christmas, showing us only the despair of pulling off this elaborate sleight of hand. Or why, every year, I watch it.
Love Actually, a holiday romantic comedy released the year Bush took America to war, is a promise unfulfilled, never quite living up to the names attached. Yet it remains popular, and it plays every December on whichever network had the foresight to purchase the rights back in 2003—I think Channel 7. This year I watched it with my family, and five minutes in my dad stood up, announced to the room that he ‘isn’t watching this crap’, and plodded off to his iPad to watch Mamma Mia, again.
On its 10 year anniversary, when asked by The Guardian how the film was made, Curtis spent a good length of the interview talking about how difficult it was to cobble together so many different stories. It was his Pulp Fiction, which here means only in attempt. He always loved multiple storylines, he said, but it ‘felt like making 10 separate films’, which they then had to piece together in the editing room as an afterthought.
Indeed, what he made was 10 vignettes, capturing characters at their most vulnerable. The film begins with Bill Nighy as a rockstar at the end of a once fulfilling career, selling his talents for a quick buck. Emma Thompson is cheated on by her husband, Laura Linney is a carer for her mentally unwell brother to the detriment of blossoming love, Liam Neeson is recently widowed and must learn to be a single father to his stepson, and so on, and so forth.
The film grounds itself in misery, which seems a very Curtis thing to do. His first, and arguably best film, Four Weddings and a Funeral, is not a celebration of triumphant love. Instead it utilises Hugh Grant’s sagging posture to undercut the mythology of marriage, and argues that the most successful relationships are those which persevere in spite of these societal definitions and expectations, not because of them. This is proven during the funeral, in which Matthew (John Hannah) dedicates a poem to the lost love of his life, Gareth (Simon Callow), a relationship kept under wraps from their closest friends because it was queer.
Four Weddings was subversive, and yet Love Actually is decidedly not. The mostly white characters exist only in heteronormative relationships, ones which often reinforce the woman-as-prize trope, leaving anything which wouldn’t exist in a sweeping 1940s romance on the cutting room floor. I mean this quite literally, as Curtis details back in 2013 that they had to scrap part of the script which followed a lesbian couple as there were ‘too many stories’.
In this, Love Actually loses purpose. It becomes a collection of tragedy porn tied loosely together with a red ribbon. Absence of growth is a hallmark of pornography, well, at least an absence of inner growth. The characters are only affected by each other for the purpose of self-gratification and nothing more, they never face real, substantive consequences for their actions, they live an anal-bleached fantasy. But in Love Actually the fantasy isn’t pleasure, it’s people in trauma, and we’re forced to stare at the trauma of these characters as they stand in the thick of a Harrods’ Christmas window display and learn only one thing: who loves them?
Last year Nicholas Barber wrote for the BBC that Love Actually is actually devoid of love. Not completely, he admits, but claims the film lacks the banter of love, which is the charm of the romantic comedy tradition, and furthermore replaces this charm with bitter insults and fat shaming. Each year I try to make a count of fat shaming incidents in the film, this year I clocked 19.
Barber asks if any of these characters are happy? But nobody claimed love is happiness, not even in the 40s. In the great tradition of It’s a Wonderful Life we understand through Hollywood that love can be an active verb, not always something we feel, or see, but something we must do. This is the Christmas spirit in the Western tradition: we give and we receive love, a fraught transaction in even the most privileged of circumstances, in even the upper-middle class of London.
Love Actually is a film I keep returning to because it is what I expect, or even what I need a Christmas movie to be. I watch Emma Thompson open a case to find a Joni Mitchell CD, revealing her husband has given the necklace she found earlier tucked away in his coat pocket to his secretary. I see her climb the stairs to her room, put on the CD and cry to her favourite song. I see her pull herself together, so as not to reveal to the children that their family is quite suddenly broken. I think, I might rewind that and watch it again.
It is not a good movie, but that’s just my opinion. It is, however, one of the most effective snapshots of what Christmas is, as we have come to believe it to be. A pressure-pot, a tinderbox, a time when we are expected to find love all around us, or else. It shows Christmas to be a threat to us, so perilous we might land ourselves accidentally in our husband’s best friend’s flat watching a VHS compilation he filmed of our own face, intimately zoomed in, as he hovers behind us.
This movie tells us love can be dangerous, or self-sacrificing, or painful, or blinding, or stupid. It gives us a snapshot of our beleaguerment, however obscured by twinkle lights. We are distracted, it says, but the agony of love will always cut through.