Article – Love Actually
It’s Christmas 2015, and time for something a bit different:
Christmas is a time for traditions and rituals. In our family we like to listen to the Messiah every December, and the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge on Christmas Eve. That sounds very sophisticated, so let me redress the balance by admitting that we can’t help ourselves and just recently restarted another tradition – listening to John Williamson’s ‘The Golden Kangaroo’. Don’t ask, just go and find it on YouTube: all I can add is “boing, boing, boing’!!
Another part of our family Christmas tradition is to watch the same movie every year, ‘Love Actually’. Covering a few weeks up until Christmas Day and its aftermath, the film charts the lives of a variety of characters, from the newly appointed British Prime Minister to an ageing rock star, from people recently divorced, widowed or married, or in new liaisons to couples experiencing various pressures. It is funny, bittersweet, and ultimately an exploration of the complexities of love through the lens of seasonal celebrations and the opportunities and tensions that Christmas creates.
I don’t want to mislead you. It isn’t a great film, but it is a good one: it tends to grow on you, and by the third of fourth viewing you see little elements that are easy to miss the first time around. Good ‘Hollywood’ films always manage to offer more than just the face story, and this does that rather well. Watching it this year, it was no surprise to realise the story was becoming rather familiar, still funny, still clever, and so I was drawn to reflect a lot more than before about the complexities and uncertainties it examines.
One theme that struck me was the messiness of relationships, the things we can’t do or see, the things we do without thinking, and the ways in which we create and inhabit prisons in our minds. Sometimes we know what we have done and fret at our inability to take a step out or make a change, but other constraints are less visible, holding us back without our realising. In a series of stories that are often deliberately left incomplete, the movie tackles that messiness well.
It was my partner who started me thinking by drawing my attention to one story, which ends with an Englishman proposing to a Portuguese woman. They had met earlier when he was working overseas; lacking each other’s language, they were unable to communicate and then gone their separate ways. Back home, he learnt some Portuguese, she learnt some English, and then he went to see her and propose. She accepted. Was that a ‘sweet’ story: so it seems until you stop and think for a moment. It was clear they knew virtually nothing about each other, and had, separately, constructed a story about the other and how they felt. Proposing and accepting took place in the context of a world imagined and yet invisible, each motivated by what they had come to think was the case, attracted to each other on the slimmest of information. The only thing we knew about the man was that his previous wife had found his brother more attractive than him, which, of course, he couldn’t see. Are we being warned that this relationship might also fail?
A very different story, clearly on the bitter side of the mix, concerns a young woman who is in love with a colleague, and has been for more than two years. He is drawn to her too, but they are unable to connect, largely because the woman has a brother in a psychiatric institution, to whom she is tightly linked. He calls her frequently, and she always takes his call, always responds to his needs. I think the viewer’s initial response is to want her to turn off her mobile phone, and have some time for herself, time for her to build a relationship that she so clearly wants. But the brother deserves love, too, and she is his only relative close by. Brother and sister, man and woman, we would all want to avoid having to make the choice with which she is faced because there is no ‘right’ alternative. She knows she is caught, but the knowledge makes her unhappy, since understanding does not mean she can see a better way to act but merely the limitations and moral consequences of the alternatives.
A lot of the movie is funny, and one of the relationships that depicted that was both hilarious and yet quite moving was that between the ageing rock star and his manager. When asked on radio to describe him, the rock star described him as fat and ugly, and the manager clearly saw his protégé as rude, self-interested and careless. Yet, in the end, they only had each other, and on Christmas Day clumsily half attempted to suggest that they loved each other, but quickly pushed aside any further discussion of what that might mean with an agreement to “get drunk and watch porn movies”, the standard male way to sweep emotional complexities under the carpet (or right out of the room!).
There is a thread running through the film that love is a result of sexual attractiveness, a situation shown in nice counterpoint by the story of a couple married for some years where the husband, the head of a marketing company, is nearly seduced by his new young personal assistant, nearly enough to deeply wound his wife. He seems oblivious to a lot of the world around him, including his partner, and you sense that he will never understand that he smashed the walls that surrounded the pair and had given them the opportunity to build love and respect. She didn’t need to think about the safety of that kind of prison until he broke it open, and now she is aware and it seems unlikely she will ever fully recapture the life she had before.
Perhaps I like the film because it captures so much about Christmas itself. Increasingly less and less focussed on the story of the birth of Jesus, it offers the opportunity to celebrate family, friendship and caring for others. At the same time, for many people it is also a time to reaffirm commitment to ‘Christian’ principles and values. Of course, it is much more than that. It is a celebration of consumerism, and a time when we feel obliged to give gifts to others of a tangible kind, to show they are the family or friends who are ‘important’ to us, the people we love. We agonise over what to give, and hope that choices will be well received. Some work, some don’t: we end the stresses of the holiday affirming that “we won’t do that again”, or that “they weren’t expecting anything, and it was plain embarrassing”. And so we ask ourselves, ‘what should we do?’
By and large, just as in the film, we accept the world we have constructed, and see no reason to step beyond it, or even acknowledge it is as constrained and constraining as it actually is. The relentless demands for donations and support from voluntary organisations and companies we have dealt with in the past batter on the doors of our sensibilities. We give in church, to one or two organisations that we really respect. However, we are unlikely to heed Peter Singer and his call to give as much as we can, and even more. We hear the words of the priest or community leader asking us to help those unable to help themselves, and we put some money in the plate, and feel we have ‘done our bit’. At the same time we wonder if those who seek our charity are really all unable to help themselves? Do those charities really do what they say? We read the websites that tell us about how much of what we give goes to staff rather than to the needy – or, at least, we meant to.
That takes us back to a question about what we mean by love. I quite often talk to various people, students, discussion groups, friends, about the importance of self-interest. I have speculated for years that we are, by and large, motivated by our own narrow self-interest. I really don’t know how much love exists in the world. Lust – sure, plenty. Love is a far more complex, demanding and challenging relationship to another person. I’ve been lucky, married and in love once before, and married an in love a second time. I’d like to think that many people around me are in love, too, but I suspect that many, like those in the film, are often living in situations where they do not want or need to really reach out to another, perhaps don’t even see the world they have built around them.
Ah, the complexities of living with other people. There are some sweet moments in the film. A man and woman, employed as stars in a soft-core porn movie start to talk to one another, and eventually get engaged. A young man in love with his best friend’s new wife manages to tell her how he feels and realises that “that was enough”, and he needed to move on. Complex, funny, sad, relationships stretched, strained and developing in the hothouse of the Christmas season, a film to enjoy, and an opportunity to reflect. I guess it’s all about love, actually!