Film There’s a moment and it happens with increasing regularity because apart from American Pie: Band Camp it seems to be the only film ITV2 has the terrestrial rights to, that Twitter decides to collectively watch Love Actually. Often it’s a Sunday night and for about two or three hours (or longer thanks to ITV2+1) my timeline will fill up with people crying over Emma Thompson’s performance or Liam Neeson’s performance or offering their strongly held belief that it’s the greatest romantic comedy of all time.
I hate the film but much of the time I ignore it and carry on reading whatever The New Yorker’s allowing non-subscribers to read or listening to This American Life. But the other night, I couldn’t hold my breath any longer and tweeted, “Love Actually is about middle class white men seducing their employees and the only two female lead characters have unhappy endings.” Which was RTed a few times and led to a stream of replies in agreement with the sentiment and noting a few other issues.
My enmity for the film stems from deciding to study it for my dissertation at university. That dissertation was about hyperlink cinema an idea originally proposed by critic Alissa Quart and popularised by Roger Ebert. As I discovered after watching a couple of dozen examples and a couple of dozen more, what this can be boiled down to is films in which a bunch of different characters appear in a bunch of different stories which might be thematically linked but are otherwise narratively unconnected, designed to compare and contrast geographical, class, race or gender differences.
Whenever I’ve had to describe all that to people who’ve asked me, I’ve generally resorted to listing the kinds of films which have this kind of structure, such as Short Cuts, Nashville, Magnolia, Crash, Syriana and Love Actually. One of the elements of my dissertation was in pointing out the distinction between these and simpler “ensemble” films like Hannah and Her Sisters or Parenthood where the connections between the characters are made obvious from the start. Hyperlink films go out of their way to surprise the audience in that regard.
It’s important to note at this point that the wikipedia page is a bit of a mess on this point, including stuff like Go, The Player and Pulp Fiction or 21 Grams all of which are wrong as is the main definition which is designed to toss in anything which has a slightly loopy narrative. Go and Pulp Fiction are just old fashioned anthology films without a linking narrator. The Player is a single protagonist story which has lots of surrounding cameos. 21 Grams has a perfectly traditional three act structure with additional flashbacks and flashforwards.
Anyway, in writing the final chapter I had to analyse three films and chose Short Cuts, Don Roos’s Happy Endings which was the film Quart had originally applied to description to and Love Actually because I quite liked it and it seemed to have the interesting angle of attempting to apply genre rules to the format. But having in-between times learnt a few things about film analysis, and after watching the text about five times for the purposes of that analysis, realised it’s a horrible, horrible film. For a start …
It’s not a romantic comedy.
The original advertising for Love Actually trumpets that it’s the “ultimate romantic comedy” and as we’ll see that was Curtis’s original intention. Except somewhere in the writing he’s obviously realised you can’t have nine romcoms happening at the same time because you’ll end up with the same ending over and over and over again, which as anyone whose seen Valentine’s Day will know doesn’t work. At all. Instead he has to resort either through design or happenstance on the usual hyperlink film tactic of “genre artifacting” in other words having essentially different kinds of story in the same film. So Crash has relationship dramas, detective stories and that sort of thing mixed in together.
The stories of author Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), the PM (Hugh) and Natalie (Martine) and perhaps John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) are classic romantic comedies, Billy Mac (Bill Nighy) is arguably in a back-stage musical, Mark’s is a tragic romance (perhaps, see below), Colin’s story has all the hallmarks of a sixties sex comedy (the kind that usually starred Robin Asquith rather an Kris Marshall as here), Karen (Emma Thompson) is in a domestic melodrama dealing with the possible infidelity of her spouse and Sarah (Laura Linney) is in the kind of women’s film that Molly Haskell proposes in which a female is stifled from love by responsibilities to her family.
So Love Actually is not just a romantic comedy. Indeed most of these stories, for all the comedic incidents put it closer to the romantic drama typified by something like Life as We Know (the one with Katherine Hiegl) or Love and other Drugs (the one with Jake Gyllenhaal) which have all the hallmarks and advertising or a romcom but due to tragic incident have a greater puffed up thematic interest. See also The Notebook. Interestingly not Four Weddings and a Funeral, because the unfortunate incident whilst the point of the thing, doesn’t become the point of the thing. If you see what I mean. Um, the point is, to say Love Actually is “the ultimate romantic comedy” barely prepares the viewer for how all of the stories conclude.
It’s poorly edited.
Even having done all of that, each of those stories still needs a beginning, middle and an end. Curtis says as much in the script book published a few months later, where he says, having decided on the Short Cuts model, “I thought I’d like to have go at writing that kind of film – to see if it was possible to write a film that with nine beginnings, nine snappy middles and nine ends – without any of the stuff in between.” Except it’s the stuff in between that people watch these films for, the series of mishaps which impede the couple getting together, which in his previous films were weddings or fame or in When Harry Met Sally, friendship.
As the script book later reveals, the first cut of Love Actually was three and a half hours long, which is about average for this kind of film (cf, Magnolia, Short Cuts) but is simply untenable in a romantic comedy which is optimally an hour and a half, or romantic drama which as we’ve discussed this is closest to at between 105 mins or 120 mins depending on tone. The problem is having included all of these stories, Curtis has to include enough incident to make them worthwhile which means the film’s a mess, with repetitions, little in the way of narrative flow and some characters barely given enough screen time to establish themselves.
They’re barely characters.
One of the convenient ways Curtis deals with not having enough time to establish characters is to have his actors reprise their previous work or screen presence, primarily Hugh and Colin who’re essentially playing variations of Charlie and Darcy allowing the writer/director to omit expository information that would usually have been required to make emotional and dramatic sense of each story.
Being critical of a well honed genre tactic is probably slightly harsh, like being annoyed at John Wayne or Meg Ryan for playing John Wayne or Meg Ryan in every film (apart from when they’re deliberately trying act against type). Except in Love Actually it doesn’t just work as an emotion gap filler, it actually seems to be used to fill in holes in the storytelling.
During the film’s set-up very little information is given as to why the PM is not married but sympathy is arguably conferred because of a similar predicament faced by Charlie, the character Hugh Grant played in Four Weddings and a Funeral which gives room for Liam Neeson to give a more formal display of acting to create sympathy in the audience for his character. Ish.
It’s really poorly edited.
These problems are particularly visible in the climax which is packed with incident and has two barnstorming finales that would not seem out of place in a romantic comedy with just two parallel protagonists, the crosscutting between Jamie’s march to find Aurelia and Sam’s dash through the airport to Joanna being visually unwieldy because their stories are unrelated. Seriously, neither of these stories have anything to do with each other, yet Curtis attempts to connect them with a bit of music and fingers crossed. People shout at Peter Jackson for all of the ends at the close of Return of the King, but he’s at least, in the extended versions, closing out twelve hours worth of narrative. Love Actually’s only two hours long.
But you can really see the torture of the editing room in the last half hour of the film as characters exhibit all kinds of strange behaviour in order for the film to actually end promptly. Colin Firth’s character Jamie apparently enters his family’s home after the radio chart show ends (usually at seven o’clock on a Sunday), and the audience is expected to believe that on Christmas Eve he is then able to flag a taxi to the airport, fly to Marseilles, take a taxi to Aurelia’s village, find her house then the restaurant at which she is employed before proposing to her. Shout all you want about this being a fairy tale like all romantic comedies, but if it was that, as we’ll see, he would have given all of his characters happy endings.
Even more bizarrely, earlier in the climax Martin Freeman’s character Jack drops Joanna Page’s Judy off after their date in the early evening, walks away happy and then the couple are later seen entering the school for the nativity scene, wearing different clothing. Just how long was the original date? Evidently, judging by the deleted scenes on dvd that nativity scene was much, much longer. Emma Thompson’s character gives a speech from the stage. Lord knows what would have led up to that, what’s missing from that escapade. No wonder the ending doesn’t make any sense.
It’s less funny and even a bit creepy the second time around.
Of course nearly all comedies are less funny second time around because the viewer already knows when the jokes are coming, unless its one of those rare examples where the anticipation of the joke is just as funny as the joke itself, or has that even more unique ability to become funnier as the viewer changes/gets older and our understanding of the situation increases.
The problem with Love Actually is because Curtis is trying to be clever he ruins one of the comedy scenes for the viewer the second time around. It’s not necessarily his fault but his lack of awareness is astounding. One of the points of the hyperlink films is the unexpected connection, when the connection between two characters is revealed and illuminates what’s gone before. Think the Cruise and Robards characters in Magnolia.
On the first viewing of Love Actually Harry (Alan Rickman) is introduced as Sarah’s helpful boss and the object of Mia’s desires it feels rather touching – a kind, perhaps lonely middle aged man with a budding office romance bringing some warmth into his life. Then some fifty minutes into the film, a simple cut from Karen (who is excited about her brother the PM’s diplomatic success) to a reverse shot reveals that Harry is her husband and the spectator was actually watching some potential infidelity.
The moment was a result of editing as Curtis explains: "‘You used to know that Emma was Hugh’s sister earlier in the film and you knew that Alan and Emma were married earlier [..] so you should be thinking about the Heike/Alan story as a fun story, funny let’s see what happens and then you suddenly realise that the flip side of it’s not so good." In other hyperlink films he would have been right. Except, Curtis is supposed to be making a romantic comedy.
At this moment the audience’s reaction to Harry changes, both in the rest of the film and on repeat viewing particularly the later comic scene in which Rufus the shop clerk (played by Rowan Atkinson) gift wraps the necklace, Harry’s gift for Mia is arguably uncomfortable even on first viewing because the humour is predicated on whether the gift will be wrapped before his wife returns so that she doesn’t see his indiscretion.
The spectator is meant to hope that his wife does not catch him even though their sympathy is now firmly with Karen. This may have been another result of the editing process; in the original version of the film Rufus was a Christmas angel supernaturally helping each of the characters – in which case he would have been extending the length of time taken for the gift to be wrapped so that Harry is caught before he does something silly.
Then the Emma Thompson scene happens at the end, an admittedly bravura piece of acting and something we can’t unremember, so when we see the film again, Rickman’s character’s a nasty, morally ambiguous fucker from the start so when he is helping Sarah we wonder what his motive is which has implications for her story going forward. Grr. Ugh.
It’s about middle class white men seducing their employees.
You won’t believe it, but I noticed this even before reading AO Scott’s barnstorming review/take down of Love Actually (which you should also read once you've got through this lot) (or instead of) in which he says:
“Most of the picture's half-dozen or so romantic subplots -- which lie scattered about like torn wrapping paper on Christmas morning -- involve workplace dalliances of one kind or another. The ones with the best chances of success all involve an older male boss and a young female subordinate. Jamie (Colin Firth), a writer cuckolded by his own brother, retreats to a villa in the South of France and falls for his Portuguese housekeeper, Aurelia, who speaks no English and who obligingly strips down to her underwear to rescue manuscript pages that have blown into the lake.”
“Harry (Alan Rickman), the head of a nonprofit organization, is besotted with his secretary, Mia (Heike Makatsh), who makes no secret of her attraction to him. The prime minister, moral exemplar of the nation, develops a crush on Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), a member of the Downing Street household staff. When the goatish president of the United States, in London for a state visit, puts the moves on her, the P.M.'s jealousy precipitates a chill in British-American relations (and also makes him a national hero).”
He has more positive things to say about the couple who work as body doubles perhaps because he believes their attraction to be more equal. But that doesn’t stop Curtis only giving us Jack’s reaction to their post-date kiss and not hers, falling into the usual romcom hole of making it all about the man’s reaction and not the woman’s, about him winning her over. But I digress.
Did Curtis know? Did he realise the socio-economic implications of these stories as he wrote them? Directed them? Why did he choose these characters and these situations? His idea is obviously to show love is all around and apparently this includes creepy class distinctions. It’s interesting that he doesn’t have a female PM romancing a male subordinate or a female novelist falling for a male cleaner isn’t it, but then …
Nearly all of the men are creeps anyway.
It is true that the reason Sarah’s romantic story ends badly is because Karl, the man she’s trying to date sods off because of all the interruptions she has because of her brother’s ill health, the impatient fucker. Her unhappy ending is in discovering the man she really fancies is an arsehole. At least she didn’t get stuck with him, I suppose.
Plus as someone replied the other night, “there's no sense in which what Andrew Lincoln's character does isn't stalking.” Unrequited love storylines are one thing, but there’s a strangeness to the way Lincoln’s character has that video and then turns up at Keira’s door essentially telling her that it’s ok that she doesn’t fancy him which is portrayed as an affirmation moment for her.
And what is that Kris Marshall story about anyway? Loveable loser goes to America and meets some walking sex dolls who throw themselves at him? It’s a wish fulfilment fantasy and on top of that makes you wonder exactly how this film is supposed to be for girls. Do they laugh at this loveable “loser”? Grin as he winningly fights against type.
Neeson’s character is given roughly the same gift. Having established that he really fancies Claudia Schiffer, he eventually meets a nice woman who’s played by Claudia Schiffer. #ffs About the only male character given any kind of redemption is Billy Mac and that only happens as part of a bromance story where he realises his manager is the love of his live. #ffs again.
The only two “main” female characters have unhappy endings.
One of the important structural elements of hyperlink dramas is its treatment of characters. There are loads of characters, some are still more or less important story-wise than others. Much of the time in each of the stories there’s still a single main character with a number of supporting characters (some of whom are main characters in their own stories.
In the stories above, Aurelia, Natalie and Mia are all supporting characters. We don’t visit their homes until well into the films and their stories aren’t about them but the blokes who’re falling in love with them. In a traditional single story romcom, these figures tend to be the manic pixie dream girls or unrequited objects of affection.
Now that means the only two leading female characters are Sarah and Karen. As A.O.Scott notices these are also the only two characters whose stories end unhappily:
“The fate of their characters suggests that women who are not young, pert secretaries or household workers have no hope of sexual fulfillment and can find only a compromised, damaged form of love. Perhaps Mr. Curtis wishes to offer this as an insight into contemporary social arrangements; if so, his indifference to the cruelty of those arrangements is truly breathtaking”
Before criticising Curtis too harshly for his apparent lack of balance, it should be noted that he originally wanted Karen’s story to end optimistically but was overruled by his producer Duncan Kenworthy, who felt that the ‘roaring rampage of romance’ required leavening (as enunciated in the supporting material on the dvd). Bastard.
It’s true that male characters do experience tragedy in the film, Daniel’s in particular. But they go on to have happy endings. To not allow either of these figures a modicum of romantic joy in the end, in a romcom, isn’t just shockingly insidious it borders on the m-word.
It also could have been much, much worse. The deleted scenes section of the DVD includes this entire story that was removed about the headmistress of the school tending to her dying lesbian life partner. It’s impeccably acted and heartbreaking:
Except it’s also another potential female main character, another unhappy ending and with a few more cliché’s thrown in for good measure.
Assuming they’re main characters at all.
Objectively from a hyperlink pov it’s also possible to suggest the only actual “main” character is Sarah. Karen until the revelation regarding her husband’s possible infidelity, is essentially a secondary character in her friend Daniel’s story, attending his wife’s funeral and providing him with a shoulder to cry on.
But it goes further than that. Even the scenes between the stand-ins on the movie set are about Jack nervously asking out Judy – at the end of their date, the audience views Jack’s reaction to the kiss – but not how Judy feels about it behind her closed front door, the man’s reaction again.
It has a stunning lack of diversity.
The only two prominent black characters, Tony (Abdul Salis) and Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are facilitators in other stories; Tony is the doubting friend of Colin and the assistant director on the film set who brings Jack and Judy together; Peter’s wife Juliet is the target of his friend Mark’s affection. They don’t have their own stories.
There’s no reason any of the characters in this film couldn’t be non-white. Chiwetel Ejiofor could just as well have played the Neeson character or the Firth. But Love Actually is just another example of a film in which non-white actors find themselves marginalized into particular types of roles.
This is changing, but not much. At this point I can’t remember a “mainstream” uk romcom about non-white characters that isn’t specifically trying to make Curtis’s own point about love being all around, where the characters just happen to be black or Asian. I’m sure there must be one.
It gets worse. On the dvd are some deleted shots in which the poster behind Sarah in the fair-trade office comes to life and as Curtis describes ’two old women carrying a heavy burden of sticks [..] they’re not talking about the problems with the land they’re talking about husbands and children and boyfriends and all that kind of stuff’. Oh purlees. As Black Book (which has an embed) says in its analysis of the deleted scenes:
"The idea was to skew the typically "Western" portrayal of Africa, although Curtis kind of reinforces it by displaying the whole "joy in poverty" thing usually seen in the Facebook albums of your well-meaning friends who went on mission trips or whatever there. See, they're poor, and their crops are dying, but it's okay, because they have each other, and that's all you need. Except when you live in an agrarian society and... anyway, the scene is cute and all, but it doesn't present Kenya (or the unfortunate blanket, continent-as-one-country sort of perception of Africa) particularly differently and would have only really worked if Curtis had then gone all over the world to find other stereotypical, It's A Small World-ish love stories to complement it. But then the movie would have been, like, three hours and..."
Other random crimes:
According to the wikipedia (though I’m not prepared to watch this thing again and check) Jeanne Moreau is seen briefly waiting for a taxi at the Marseille Airport suggesting she had a longer sequence of scenes which were cut. The opening tasteless 9/11 referencing sequence which Will Self described as: “the most grotesque and sick manipulation of a cinema audience's feelings that I've ever seen since Leni von [sic] Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will'.” The US version of the film has a “Sugababes” track replaced by one from Kelly Clarkson. No actually, that’s not such a bad thing.
Three redeeming features:
The directors commentary on the dvd in which Hugh turns up late and takes the piss out of the thing all the way through, piercing Curtis's piety. The moment where Nighy can't remember which is Ant or Dec. The Joni Mitchell scene which is an amazing piece of acting from Emma, even if you don't agree with the story that it's supporting. Kind of makes you wish Curtis had simply made a film about her character's story and not passed it off as a rom-com.
I’ve probably overwritten this and the original tweet probably captures everything much more succinctly but I thought it was worth finally putting into words. Or into words again. It’s a ghastly, ghastly film, and even ten years later exemplifies a particular type of filmmaking which gives the viewer some stars and amusing situations while subliminally, unconsciously or no, confirms or emphasises some of societies least digestible elements.
Curtis would go on to make The Boat That Rocks, a film that’s even more grotesque with its astonishingly ill-conceived “bed trick” scene which has the distinction of somehow making the viewer hate Nick Frost because he agreed to act in it apparently without noticing the psycho-sexual implications. But I’ve thankfully only had to watch that once and even then I wasn’t happy about it. But Love Actually? I feel like I’m watching it every time it’s on ITV2, even when I’m not.
Have I missed anything?