Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Love Actually

YEAR: 2003
DIRECTOR: Richard Curtis
KEY ACTORS: Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Laura Linney
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.6
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 64%

SEX SCORE: 3/5
✔️ I’m begrudgingly giving it a mark for being rewatchable as I do watch it every year, despite it being a definite hate watch now!
✔️ But this isn’t nearly as begrudgingly I’m giving it a mark for passing the Bechdel Test. In a movie all full of women, the only conversation between named female characters that wasn’t about a man occurred between Emma Thompson and her daughter about being a lobster in the nativity. Wow…
✔️ It’s difficult to decide but I think it is a sex positive film. It’s unfeminist and it’s problematic but it doesn’t really shame its characters particularly for having sex. I don’t think…
❌ I don’t want to fuck the cast, despite how hot many of them were at this time. I just don’t like them enough to fuck them!
❌ And it didn’t inspire any fantasies. Even the romantic fantasies are looking pretty problematic now!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (free with subscription), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: suicide, the current political climate, with brief mentions of sexual assault and stalking]

The poster for Love Actually showing photos of the main characters surrounded by ribbon

So as we get closer to Christmas, I’m supposed to be picking Christmas movies that are less controversial choices than previous ones, which, of course, that leads me straight to Love Actually. Except that Love Actually is a still a somewhat controversial choice as it is a hugely divisive movie – it seems that you either love it or hate it, and if you’re in between then it’s likely that you just haven’t thought enough about it.

For me, Love Actually is an absolutely perfect encapsulation of 2003. It was before Trump, before Brexit, before the financial crash and austerity. Love Actually came out before #MeToo and before Kavanaugh, before food banks and even before the MP expenses scandal. It was before the scale of the Iraq War and the dubious role of our prime minister in its initiation had become clear, before most of us knew who Nigel Farage was and before Boris Johnson had been Mayor of London. But it came out after we survived the Millennium Bug, after 9/11 and after the Good Friday Agreement ‘solved’ the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It came out in an entirely different world; one that existed in the eye of the storm after 9/11 when we were all optimistic about the future and about how this devastating tragedy had pulled us together, and even comfortable enough to use it as a feel-good story, and hadn’t yet realised how much it had poisoned everything. And so, much that seemed normal and OK in 2003 has also been soured by what came afterwards.

I loved Love Actually for years. It was witty and light and romantic and hopeful enough that I didn’t mind the few depressing storylines. I thought it was what love was supposed to be like, but now I know better. I can’t watch it through 2003’s eyes anymore, and while I do appreciate the value of nostalgia and the comfort in looking back at a time when the news didn’t make me want to cry, that feeling is not enough to overcome the massive problems with this movie.

Sorry to the Love Actually fans because this is not going to be pretty…

But in a change from most angry posts on this blog, I’m not going to rant about how unfeminist this movie is – not because I disagree, because wow it’s awful, but because I have bigger fish to fry. Also, I couldn’t possibly better Lindy West’s blistering attack in 2013, which everyone should read. In fact, her article is so good that I am going to occasionally directly lift quotes from it to emphasise my points.

(By the way, this film is too complicated to include a summary of the plot so let’s start with our first Lindy West quote to sum up what the film is about: ‘This entire movie is just straight white men acting upon women they think they “deserve.” This entire movie is just men doing things.’)

This isn’t going to be a feminist rant because it is an existential crisis, a cry for help and a living nightmare as I am increasingly convinced that we can rightfully blame Love Actually for the shitshow of a world we currently live in.

I first had this thought as a bit of a joke – a new and timely angle with which to rant about a slightly dodgy film – and then this happened and I knew I was right.

Boris fucking Johnson recreating the creepy scene about the stalkerish weirdo that prompted shouts of ‘HEY. DUDE. YOU’RE A DICK. THIS ISN’T ROMANCE, IT’S SOCIOPATHY’ to make a political point. This is the end of the world.

Now, this is being published on Sunday 15th December and the UK General Election took place on Thursday 12th. When I started writing it, we were still in purgatory, watching all the lies and crass attempts at memes and destructive finger pointing and isolationism, but now we know how fucked we are. And I want to blame something. I am filled with impotent rage and devastation and disgust and I want to blame something, so I’m going to blame Love Actually. And I think you’ll agree that I have a pretty compelling case.

So let’s start with Hugh Grant as Prime Minister. A man who, to paraphrase the Bad Feminist Film Club, looks incapable of making a cup of tea. He wanders aimlessly around Downing Street, looking vaguely lost all the time and mooning over a member of staff. Do you really believe that he can take decisive action? Would you trust him with the country? He strikes me as a prototype celebrity politician – less political mastermind who happens to be good looking and more handsome man who somehow ended up as prime minister. Was he the beginning of our acceptance of style over substance? He’s supposed to be a great PM, but what does he really do? He ignores his cabinet’s advice on foreign policy, fires his assistant because he wants to fuck her, and then visits every house in Wandsworth because he hasn’t kept adequate employee records. And yet we loved him. He was the hero we all wanted!

An image from Love Actually showing Hugh Grant as prime minister looking baffled

Just think about his famous rabble rousing speech against the US President – who was George W Bush in 2003, remember. Who thought we would ever back at that with fondness? This angry attack on the president is horrible in hindsight for two reasons – for a start, he only did it because he was jealous that the president had made a move on his tea lady (*cough* patriarchy), and it was a textbook example of the ‘Britain is the best’ attitude that I believe led directly to Brexit and the clusterfuck of this election.

We may be a small country, but we’re a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that.

What do David Beckham’s right or left feet have to do with anything? Regardless of how great or not they may be, can Britain as a whole really take credit for any of these individuals? It’s not like we have a great record for funding arts and sports, especially before 2012. And can we use them as reasons to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world? Oh, we don’t need a stable economic community – we have Shakespeare! Never mind if we’re making ourselves the laughing stock of the world as we increase our vulnerability and push away our allies, we have Sean Connery. Sean fucking Connery! The misogynist who doesn’t give a crap about Britain and would rather further divide our union through Scottish independence (although, right now, who can blame the Scots for wanting independence?).

Why did that speech make us feel so powerful? Our cultural outputs are certainly something to be proud of but they have no place in foreign policy! And why did we all cheer and praise Grant’s PM for finally standing up to the ‘bullies’ across the Atlantic when they are clearly important allies? Did we really feel that small or that manipulated? Or did we really think we were that important? There are so many aspects of British life that would be worth celebrating – the NHS as an obvious example – and yet we’re given Churchill!

An image from Love Actually showing Billy Bob Thornton as the president looking very smug

The more I watch Love Actually, the more I realise that it’s frankly xenophobic. Billy Bob Thornton’s US President is a letch and a bully who assaults a woman in the presence of our PM but he’s not the most offensive representation of Americans in this film. Devastatingly, he’s just a pretty accurate prediction of Trump.

No, it’s Kris Marshall’s character Colin that reveals quite how little 2003 Britain thought of America. Colin is a bit of a loser who’s kind of kooky looking but he travels to America because, in any bar, he will find beautiful and willing women who will want to fuck him just for his British accent. Which he does. Three of them, who all happen to sleep naked in one bed and would gladly share it with him. From a 2003 British perspective, this is hilarious. From an American perspective, this is kind of offensive – the whole point of the joke is that Colin is punching above his weight and only succeeds because the women he meets are vacuous idiots who are seduced by his accent. They exist only for their beauty and sex, and this is apparently what every American woman is like in every bar? Ouch. And it is Colin’s British accent that is his big appeal – simply being British turns him into a stud, whereas simply being American makes them willing idiots.

An image from Love Actually showing Colin and the three American women

As a quick aside, is Colin an incel? He thinks he deserves sex because of all the work he puts into charming the ladies and his entire character revolves around getting what he feels he deserves: ‘he’s terribly terribly oppressed because no ladies want to sit on his ginger ween (idea: could it possibly be because you wear a shirt that says “Satisfaction Guaranteed” and call complete strangers “my future wife” in a professional setting and then whine about not receiving immediate intercourse?)’ It’s really not that attractive…

OK, back to xenophobia and this time it concerns how little exact European geography matters to the British! It only occurred to me in the past few years that Colin Firth’s character, Jamie, flies into Marseilles airport to spend December in a French villa…where he is waited on by a Portuguese housekeeper who he later visits in her Portuguese community, walking the streets followed by a whole bunch of Portuguese people. What? Where? Does that even make geographic sense? Does he drive her back to Portugal every day from Marseilles??

Jamie and Aurelia

Apparently there is a significant Portuguese population in Marseilles that may account for this quirk but this is literally never explained. And it never occurred to me to think that there needed to be an explanation! Again, the joke that is hilarious to the British (the English?) is that an English man can’t speak a foreign language and just bumbles around, so what does it matter where he is or what languages he can’t speak. It may be self-deprecating humour but it feels a lot like it emphasises the point that the Brits don’t really value Europe or European culture; we can just stay British and we’ll be fine. It’s charming that we incompetently try! Do you think Jamie carries on learning Portuguese after he marries Aureila or, as she’s learning to speak English, will he give up? Hmmm…

So my next big problem with this film is the position it takes on caring for family. Laura Linney’s character, Sarah, is one of very few who don’t find love in this movie. It’s suggested that she’s not confident enough to talk to the man she wants, an understandable problem that is unlikely to be helped by her boss ridiculing her for her lack of action – ‘Um, sorry, WHAT KIND OF BUSINESS MEETING IS THIS? Was the working title of this shit Hostile Work Environment: The Movie?’ – but the main problem is that she’s also too busy answering calls from her brother: ‘Ugh, women with mentally ill brothers are such boner killers.’

So hang on a second, Sarah doesn’t deserve love because she’s too busy looking after her unwell brother? Oooooh, and Sarah is American – is the subliminal message that foreigners don’t deserve sex in the UK, as Karl doesn’t get any either, or that carers don’t? Either way, what the fuck!

Laura Linney in Love Actually

The potential damage that our new government could wreak over our health and social care systems is one of my biggest fears following their re-election, particularly as mental health services are already in crisis. Sarah’s brother is in an inpatient facility but it is implied that they are not adequately able to care for his emotional needs – hence all of the phone calls. He is in a place of safety but he still needs reassurance and love from his sister, and yet she is portrayed as weak for constantly complying with his wishes. Not loving or like a good sister; she doesn’t get sex or love because she choses her family instead.

Maybe she should have switched off her phone when things started hotting up with Karl, but can we really criticise her for prioritising her family over what is most likely to be a one-night stand after the office Christmas party? She might have been in love with him for two years, seven months, three days and, I suppose, an hour and thirty minutes but they aren’t friends, they don’t really talk on screen, they don’t have any kind of potential relationship. She did the right thing by being there for her brother!

And maybe we should instead be criticising the mental health facility that is treating her brother. Maybe it should have a policy about no phone calls after hours. Maybe they should be managing his delusions better so that he doesn’t need to call his sister at night to talk through his fears about the Pope and how everyone is trying to kill him. Maybe the responsibility of his well-being shouldn’t be laid at his sister’s door!

Finally, although I could go on, this film perpetuates really quite nasty messages about toxic masculinity and how men shouldn’t show their emotions. Liam Neeson’s recently widowed Daniel is as close a portrayal of true and healthy emotion as this film allows any of its male characters to show – don’t forget, heartbroken Jamie runs away to France, confused and jealous PM (who doesn’t actually have a name?!) causes a diplomatic incident, sexually harassed Alan Rickman just plays along and destroys his family, deprived and lovesick Andrew Lincoln creates the world’s creepiest wedding video and involves his best friend’s new wife in a lie that will last a lifetime. But Daniel cries. He lets his emotions out.

Until Emma Thompson tells him not to because otherwise he won’t be attractive enough to be loved again: ‘people hate sissies. No one is going to shag you if you cry all the time.’ No, people don’t hate sissies! And that’s not even the point – men who cry aren’t sissies!! People hate men who are unable to process their emotions and end up consumed by anger or overwhelmed by depression. Honestly, what kind of message is this? Suicide rates in men remain higher than in women and are currently at a nineteen year peak and I really don’t think that telling men who do feel their emotions that they are unlovable is going to help that. Daniel doesn’t show any negative emotion again. He just got over his grief? Really?

So thank you, Love Actually. Not only did you teach us that ‘the less a woman talks, the more lovable she is’ and not only did you tell ‘a generation of men that their intrusiveness and obsessions are “romantic,” and that women are secretly flattered no matter what their body language says’ but you made caring for family look like a reason we shouldn’t be loved. You told us that fat people are disgusting and that men shouldn’t show their emotions. You made sexual women the enemy and turned loyal housewives into chumps.

And you emphasised over and over again that Britain is better than America and Europe and everyone else at a time when we should have been learning that we’re stronger together as that is the only way to stop the fear getting in.

But we didn’t learn that message. And despite Hugh Grant’s best efforts to persuade us otherwise in the past few weeks, we have still elected a man who spouts as much nationalist rhetoric as Grant’s depiction of the Prime Minister, but one who is significantly less harmless.

God, he is such a fucking idiot that he didn’t even understand what the original scene was about!

So there you have. The world is on fire and I believe Love Actually was the spark that lit it. (Or at least one of them!) It is a bad bad film.

Next week: The Holiday

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

1 Comment

  1. I’m going to have to go back and watch this movie again! This is so spot on though, hilariously sad. We feel your pain from over here across the pond. The last three plus years have been an embarrassment to say the least, but I’m not really in the mood to get up on that soapbox at the moment!

Do you like this film? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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