A decade after its release, Love Actually is under attack. The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr posted a lengthy takedown of the movie last Friday, eliciting glee from the film’s many haters and only sheepish defiance from its fans. His criticisms: the movie focuses too much on physical attraction; it portrays relationships as grand gestures and crushes, rather than timeworn care and hard work; it suggests love can’t overcome obstacles. Basically, Orr says, the movie offers a lusty, shallow, wimpy version of love.
I disagree, and I’ve been plotting my response to Orr’s post for a while. At approximately 4:33 p.m. on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, virtually all work at our D.C. office halted when staffers circled around me and Orr, Fight Club style, as we loudly debated the movie’s merits. And since The Atlantic is “of no party or clique,” there’s room for more than one Love Actually opinion on this website.
I admire the bravery that’s needed to declare oneself the enemy of Christmas, Colin Firth, and crushes nurtured by 11-year-old kids, and it would be cowardly to hide behind the movie’s cute-factor in mounting my defense. There’s a real argument to be made on the film’s behalf: Love Actually shows awkward, charming, complicated entanglements that can be very instructive in thinking about love.
To help explain why, I hereby declare my second in this duel: C.S. Lewis. Although a mid-century Christian apologist might seem like an bizarre choice for back-up in a battle about a romantic comedy, his book The Four Loves provides a helpful framework for examining the big question Love Actually asks: What is love, actually?
Well, for starters, it’s a lot more than romance. Some of the movie’s most “aww!”-inducing moments do involve big, dramatic declarations of the heart (more on that later), but the most interesting of the movie’s nine or 10 subplots are those that don’t quite fit the expected rom-com mold. That’s because they’re not romantic at all: They’re versions of the first two kinds of love Lewis writes about, affection and friendship.
Take, for example, the lovely Laura Linney, who plays a graphic designer who can’t consummate her crush on her co-worker, Carl, because she feels obligated to spend her emotional energy caring for her mentally ill brother. Orr doesn’t buy it, writing, “It’s not as though she’s caring for her disabled brother full-time: He’s in a state facility! But by the molehills-to-mountains calculus of Love Actually, Linney appears doomed to an early spinsterhood.”
That misses the point of this subplot: Sometimes, non-romantic relationships are more important than romantic ones, even if that fact can be frustrating and heartbreaking. Linney may be scared and shy and slightly awkward, which are all understandable, true-to-life explanations for why she’s not getting any with Carl, but she’s also emotionally preoccupied. For Linney, her affection for her brother has displaced the role of eros, or romantic, sexual love, in her life.
“Affection … is the humblest love,” Lewis writes. “People can be proud of being ‘in love,’ or of friendship. Affection is modest—even furtive and shame-faced.” Linney captures this perfectly: She’s embarrassed and sad about getting in her own way with Carl, indulging a quick cubicle cry when Carl wishes her only a brief good night at work after their failed post-Christmas-party hook-up.
But her relationship with her brother is also one of great need. Since their parents have passed away, she feels he must be her emotional priority, and in some ways, she uses him to hide her own feelings of shyness and dissatisfaction with her love life. Lewis writes that this is an important component of affection: “It is a need-love, but what it needs is to give. It is a gift-love, but it needs to be needed.”
Need is also an important part of the relationship between Liam Neeson and Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who play a recent widower and stepson dealing with loss. Neeson is unsure of how to be a father to Brodie-Sangster after the death of the child’s mother. “The problem is, it was his mom who always used to talk to him,” Neeson says. “This whole stepfather thing seems suddenly to somehow matter in a way that it never did before.” When Brodie-Sangster confesses that he’s despairing about a crush on Joanna, “the coolest girl in school,” the two find something to work on together, a temporary distraction from grief. “Her name’s Joanna?” Neeson asks. “Yeah, I know, same as mom,” Brodie-Sangster answers.
The movie’s most heartbreaking plotline shows how affection can become the substance of marriage over time—and how, sometimes, that’s not enough. Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson play a husband and wife with a friendly, banter-filled domestic routine: raising kids, shopping for presents, crafting ridiculous papier-mâché lobster costumes for their daughter’s Christmas nativity play (“There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?” Thompson asks. “Duh,” her daughter replies). Thompson clearly feels that she has become less sexy as she has aged: At one point, she remarks that her skirt size makes her look like Pavarotti, and her husband fails to take the compliment cue when he replies, “Pavorotti dresses very well.”
Meanwhile, at work, Rickman’s sexually aggressive secretary is pursuing him, and he gives in a little, buying her an expensive gold necklace (while his wife gets only a Joni Mitchell CD). Thompson finds out and confronts him in a devastating scene. “What would you do if you were in my position?” she asks. “Would you stay, knowing life would always be a little bit worse? …You’ve made a fool out of me. You’ve made the life I lead foolish, too.”
Orr praises this scene but condemns the movie for failing to supply an adequate resolution to their story. But again, this criticism is besides the point: Although this incident might not be fully realized infidelity, it represents the unhappiness hiding beneath a friendship-style marriage. We can’t be sure what to make of Rickman and Thompson’s final conversation at the end of the movie, when she greets him coldly at the airport after he returns from a trip, but that uncertainty seems just as plausible as a scene where we find out that Thompson has made a definitive choice would have been. “Nearly all the characteristics of this love are ambivalent,” Lewis writes. Especially in the context of marriage, the idea of definitively “overcoming an obstacle” seems much less authentic than “just trying to figure it out,” muddling through the infinite composite of good moments and bad moments of a life lived together. Ambivalence is appropriate: Thompson can love her husband and feel hurt by him at the same time.
Then there’s the complication of Lewis’s second kind of love: friendship. Although we don’t know much about the longtime friendship between two thirtysomethings played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Andrew Lincoln, we do know that Lincoln’s character has long been in love with Ejiofor’s new wife, played by Keira Knightley.
In most romantic comedies, there would be no space for a plot line sympathetic to a guy who wants to get it with his best friend’s brand-new wife, but that’s why this story is so charming—and challenging. Love does not always or even usually happen in convenient or symmetrical ways, and that’s painful: We see Lincoln’s character literally spin in circles outside of his apartment, trying to decide what to do after Knightley finds out how he feels about her. Ultimately, he decides to be honest, but in a non-predatory way: He confesses that he cares about her but asks for nothing in return. For some, this may seem morally messy, made even worse when Knightley runs after him to give him a kiss. But “not all kisses between lovers are lovers’ kisses,” Lewis writes. With that kiss, Knightley recognizes how human it is to love someone but not be loved back in the same way, but both she and Lincoln seem to understand that having feelings for someone doesn’t make it right to break up a marriage or destroy a friendship.
We see another friendship between Bill Nighy and Gregor Fisher, a washed-up rockstar and his manager who are trying to stage Nighy’s return to fame by promoting a genuinely terrible Christmas remix of one of his old hits. Orr dismisses this relationship as “pretty clearly tacked on at the end to make that story fit the film’s larger framework,” but I disagree. As Lewis writes, friendship “withdraws men from collective ‘togetherness’ as surely as solitude itself could do.” That’s a lot like how Nighy describes his feelings for Fisher at the end of the movie when he leaves a decadent Christmas party to come to Fisher’s apartment and drink beer instead: Being at a glamorous bash full of people who only like you superficially and temporarily is infinitely lamer than hanging out on the couch with the friend who’s been with you for the most significant moments of your life. This, coincidentally, is the guiding principle of my couch-intensive social life. But unlike me, Nighy is a celebrity with roomfuls of admirers, which is why his late-in-the-movie realization is believable. Throughout, Fisher is always with him, always willing to be the butt of his jokes—it just takes a while for Nighy to realize that this is more substantive than the “collective togetherness” of fame.
Despite the striking elements of these plotlines, I would be lying if I pretended I don’t swoon a little at the movie’s examples of eros, or romantic and sensual love. Lewis’s description of eros is important for debunking the claim that the movie focuses too much on physical attraction, because it’s not quite right to say that the characters are just full of raw sexual urges. “Sexuality may operate without eros or as part of eros,” Lewis writes. “Lovers, unless their love is very short-lived, again and again feel an element not only of comedy, not only of play, but even buffoonery, in the body’s expression of eros.” It’s telling that there’s very little sex in the movie; lust plays a very minor role (with the possible exception of Kris Marshall’s clearly-intended-to-be-comical character, Colin Frissell, an awkward Brit who travels to Wisconsin with the explicit goal of getting girls and promptly finds himself a trio of women to take him home. My brother, who’s living as an ex-pat in China, says this is the only believable part of the movie—figures).
Orr is right that we don’t see many long, relationship-building conversations, but that doesn’t mean the characters aren’t in love. In fact, it seems true to life that crushes should happen in irrational, unpredictable ways. It’s also possible that “similar likes and dislikes, overlapping senses of humor, shared values,” and other elements of romance cited by Orr factor into the characters’ feelings, but it’s valid for the movie to focus on showing a different aspect of love: the mysterious, sometimes inexplicable experience of falling for someone.
This brings me to the most important point in defense of the movie: the greatness of grand gestures.
One of the movie’s “disturbing lessons about love,” Orr writes, is 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.”
He’s right that relationships don’t become permanent and perfect just because someone says “I love you.” But the movie recognizes this—take Lincoln’s confession of love to Knightley, for example. More importantly, it recognizes the hand-wringing nervousness that comes from confessing care, and from having an all-consuming crush on another person, as a real and authentic part of romantic love.
Lewis agrees. “The event of falling in love is of such a nature that we are right to reject as intolerable the idea that it should be transitory,” he writes. Becoming fascinated with someone else is so exciting, so nerve-racking—it’s “the total agony of being in love,” observes Brodie-Sangster, quite a wise 11-year-old.
On the most basic level, this is why I love Love Actually and, I think, it's part of why people are drawn to romantic movies in the first place: the excitement and power of demonstrations of love. None of the movie’s characters manages to pull off a Hollywood-perfect version of this. Hugh Grant, who plays Britain’s prime minister, gets caught kissing one of his staffers, played by Martine McCutcheon, on stage at her nephew’s Christmas play. Colin Firth proposes to his former house cleaner, Lúcia Moniz, in grammatically sketchy Portuguese. Martin Freeman’s character meets Joanna Page’s character while they’re working as body doubles on the set of a soft-core porn movie, yet he fumbles their first kiss after he finally asks her out on a date. These scenarios are messy, awkward, and often hilarious, but they are also winning, because they make the universe seem ever-so-slightly more wondrous.
If the real world is not like this, then perhaps it’s the real world that needs to change—we’d be better off if there were more grand gestures. These are moments that remind of how special life really is: The gesturer gets the thrill of delighting someone they care about; the recipient feels as though they are uniquely worth of someone’s affections; and bystanders believe that, one day, they too might find the high heights of enthusiastic, whirlwind love. Especially at Christmas time, when new snow and Mariah Carey and the smell of pine make the world seem magical even for Jews like me, big expressions of feeling should be applauded, not condemned—and perhaps that’s why Love Actually has been declared a “‘classic’ holiday film.”
For those keeping score on the C.S. Lewis front, you’ll notice I’ve only mentioned three loves, not four. That’s because charity, the fourth love, is where the “Christian apologist” part of Lewis’s work becomes unavoidable: The three “natural loves” of affection, friendship, and eros cannot equal or replace the loving relationship we experience with God, he says. Any argument I could make for applying this concept to Love Actually would be total bullshit, so for now, let’s stick with three.
But I think three loves do the trick. Love Actually is not solely romantic, but it’s also not un-romantic. Although it may have flaws, these imperfections probably make it more romantic, because they make it more true to the complicated nature of love in real life. I refuse to be shamed into taking my Netflix and bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats and retreating into my bedroom to watch the movie in secret. C.S. and I will enjoy our annual viewing with pride.