IIt’s December and Christmas movies are at the top of the agenda for the next few weeks, right?
If there’s a Christmas-themed film that doesn’t deserve to be looked at charitably, it certainly does love actually.
Things have changed since 2003 — and after watching the film again, I can say, in true Curtis Curse Brit fashion, thank goodness. Because few films look so embarrassingly out of step with modern feminism as love actually.
It has become a romcom staple and what Americans call the “Christmas Classic” watched by millions every Christmas. Many fans are excited at the thought of revisiting these characters. But — to use a phrase that definitely didn’t exist in 2003 — this darling is problematic.
Even upon its release, there was some grumbling about Curtis’ prioritizing grand romantic gestures over character development. But even if it showed incredible stickiness, the film also dated quickly. Increasingly, internet critics are realizing what a chilling version of romance it offers (most notable being Jezebel’s hilariously screaming take-down).
Because all power and agency belongs to the male characters, while women – often their younger employees – are quiet, appreciative, pretty things. Those who have any concerns or responsibilities beyond satisfying men seem to be penalized for missing out on love and having to listen to Joni Mitchell.
It also seems surprisingly heteronormative: nine floors, all straight ahead. Same-sex romances are gently mocked but never visualized or celebrated (a lesbian scene was filmed but cut). Everyone is obviously hoping that the reunion will finally bring aging rock star Billy Mack and his devoted manager together. I’d wager that the lack of gay narrative will at least be addressed in some way.
What about the representation of women? We can only hope. Apparently, love actually is not the only film that presents female characters purely as wish-fulfilment. The industry has always been male dominated. Most of the films we see are shot from the men’s point of view, with women positioned as objects of desire to be acquired. But for such a beloved, really not that old film, love actually feels particularly outrageous, replete with examples of passive women serving men’s needs and desires.
So, in an act of cold-hearted cynicism against the overly optimistic, sugar-sweet romcom, here are all the ways the relationships kick in love actually make for a really uncomfortable viewing.
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Mark and Juliet
The kind of man who hires unwelcome “surprise” sex workers for his mate’s bachelorette party may not be a man of tremendous emotional intelligence. But Mark – played by Andrew Lincoln – is turning into a real creep. Secretly in love with his best friend’s (Keira Knightley) fiancee, he only films her at the wedding. Often in extreme close-up, and certainly not just a pretty face, over and over again. This jerk-off tape is an almost hilariously striking example of the male gaze in the cinema: the camera literally frames his lust, the viewer presents Knightley through his adoring eyes. But it also seems to convey something visually about male control – he circumcises her, holds her tight, sets limits on the horrible object of desire.
Because Mark is afraid: afraid of how much he likes Julia. And yet he doesn’t even know her. Julia says, “But you never talk to me…you don’t like me.” Mark put her on a pedestal solely for her looks, with no regard for her personality or intellect. If he had bothered to chat with her, he might have noticed that they had irreconcilably different views about the war in Iraq or the new Radiohead album or whatever people were talking about in 2003 and could have moved on.
Instead, we get the movie’s most famous scene: Mark shows up to declare his love with the help of giant handwritten signs, because it’s Christmas and on Christmas we tell the truth. do we? Isn’t it time for the little “I love it, you shouldn’t have it” white lies? And he calls this wife of his best friend “perfect”. Keep it under your Santa hat, Mark.
Sam and Joanna
Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is just a kid, but he’s tragically madly in love with Joanna (Olivia Olson), the coolest girl in school. She doesn’t even know it exists. But you’re never too young to learn how to “make” a girl like you. “I have a plan,” he explains. “Girls love musicians.” So he decides to learn to play the drums.
This storyline is basically a mini-me of Mark and Julia. Instead of just admiring her from afar, why not try talking to her? Maybe a conversation would be better than pretending to like playing music to get her into you? Be true to yourself, little Sam.
Jamie and Aurelia
Poor handsome writer Jamie (Colin Firth) is betrayed and has to lick his wounds in France. His housekeeper is a certain Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), a Portuguese who doesn’t speak English. They fall in love despite being literally unable to communicate. In another grand romantic gesture/arrogant gesture of male entitlement, he shows up at Christmas to ask her – his younger employee, with whom he has never had a single conversation – to marry him. It comes across as shallow at best, deranged at worst. It’s wish-fulfillment for the lazy romantic: getting the perfect girl without having to bother to meet her.
The other really annoying thing about this storyline is that moment when they jump into a lake to save the pages of his book. Let a lascivious slow motion camera pan Moniz’s body up and down as she strips down to her underwear and performs an elegant dive while Firth is allowed to fall in fully clothed and squirt around looking silly. Come on, Colin is famous for a wet shirt scene – if we’re going to see, can it at least be an equality bully?
Sarah and Karl
We know it’s not going to end well for Laura Linney’s character, Sarah: she wears frumpy skirts and baggy sweaters with awful butterfly brooches. She also doesn’t prioritize romance and a man’s sexual pleasure above anything else.
After the office party, the souped-up Sarah finally arrives with her longtime crush, the handsome Karl (Rodrigo Santoro, whose torso, admittedly, the film lingers on with female lust). But Sarah’s phone keeps going off and she keeps walking. To be fair, it’s her mentally ill brother who literally sounds like he’s about to kill himself. I like to think most guys would understand that. They would be ready for a rearrangement. Hell, maybe they’d even ask a few questions, see how they could help…
Not Karl. Not in love actually. Apparently in rom-com land, a man can’t share a woman with another man, even if it’s her sick brother. And a woman cannot have a life or responsibility of her own; she must be available at all times to meet his needs. Back to woollens, Sarah.
Colin and all the American babes
When we first meet Colin (Kris Marshall), he insults her badly in the face of a wedding caterer’s kitchen. Instead of being embarrassed and apologizing, he decides his problem is that British women are snooty. He has to go to America to move.
Immediately he meets three very hot girls who love his accent and end up returning to hers for an orgy. Of course they’re purely sex objects and this storyline is total male wish fulfillment – but at least the whole thing is played with a tongue-in-cheek, hilarious, knowingly ridiculous. Or maybe by the end of the movie I was just too tired to care.
Harry and Karen
Alan Rickman is the suave senior boss Harry; his sexy young secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch) literally spreads her legs for him. She is so seductively evil that she wears devil horns to a Christmas party. Does she think it’s Halloween? Who knows.
The woman is certainly in pursuit here – but power and status are still all on his side. He’s the boss. She calls him “sir” for goodness sake (did anyone really call their boss “sir” in 2003?). And then there’s the matter of her asking him for a nice present after the very obvious offer of sex. That’s queasy at best.
Then there’s poor Karen, Harry’s wife, played by Emma Thompson in the film’s only truly human, multifaceted performance. She wears bulky velvet, worries about being fat and a little stressed out chasing after the kids (no sign of Rickman helping them make their nativity costumes, eh). Karen is also the only person we see sad in the final montage of the happy couple film. Why? Because she’s not a cheeky bombshell in her twenties? Because she challenges her husband about his behavior and makes him feel guilty?
In any case, the message seems to be that only women who are sexy and who make their men happy get their own happy ending. Fuck you, Richard Curtis. That’s actually not okay.
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/love-actually-netflix-christmas-romcom-b2245005.html In fact, love isn’t the heartwarming Netflix romcom you remember