Down With Love
On the flipside, Orr’s complaint extends to the failed relationships as proof that love is displayed as being impossible. That’s an easy read considering so much of the film is concerned with love at first sight and the fairytale it produces, but the failed relationships have a stronger bite that is used to profess different kinds of love.
Sarah — who is the only female character struggling to pursue her crush — is a lonely fish out of water who is essentially waiting for a handsome idiot named Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) to act on his knowledge that she likes him. When he finally asks her to dance, they share the cliche of a fast song being cut short in favor for a slow jam (worst DJ ever?), and a physical connection is made. They take it back to her place where she reveals that the multitude of phone calls she receives are from her mentally challenged brother — a needy individual who derails her night of passion.
Whereas Orr see it as an inconvenience that’s baffling in its destruction of a romantic possibility for all time, I always read Sarah’s story as 1) a signal that Karl is a bit of a douchebag who is unworthy of her love (to mirror her belief that things are the other way around) and 2) a strengthening arc between her and her brother (him trying to hit her is challenging, him hugging her gets me every time). There’s nothing that says Karl can’t try again, but there will always be another man in her life, and if he really wants to make something happen, he’ll need to come up with something better than “maybe just don’t answer it?”. What he chooses, doesn’t matter, because the story itself is more about how amazing Sarah is than whether she will end up with the beautiful co-worker.
Even stronger is the moment where Karen unwraps the Christmas gift from her husband to find that he’s bought her a thoughtful present. . . that isn’t the golden necklace she found in his jacket. Watching Emma Thompson compose herself, break down with gusto behind a closed bedroom door and then return with a brave smile for the children is a towering sequence made possible by Thompson’s acting acumen and the script’s ability to swing the pendulum from the cartoonishly ridiculous to the intimately poignant.
For Sarah it’s love for her sibling (and herself), for Karen it’s love for her children and a question mark floating over how sustainable love actually is after decades of wear and tear. It’s never about love being impossible.
Yes, Virginia, It’s a Christmas Movie
It seems bizarre to quibble about what people choose to watch around holidays or whether those films are seasonally appropriate. If you watch Saving Private Ryan every St. Patrick’s Day or The Bird Cage every Winter Solstice, who really cares?
Even considering that freedom, Love Actually is still very much a Christmas movie. Orr doesn’t see it, but there’s one simple question that cements it: is there any other time of year that it could have taken place?
Of course not. No other holiday so universally draws friends, family and co-workers together in the same way or lasts inexplicably for an entire month. It may not have peace on earth or Santa showing up to give everyone Hokey Pokey Elmos (it was 2003, people), but it seems awfully closed-off to think a “Christmas movie” has to feature those specific elements. Love Actually is primarily a romance (and to think romance is solely relegated to Valentine’s Day is equally bizarre), but it also puts different kinds of love on display, uses Christmastime standards as plot devices and even offers a not-at-all-annoying shitty Christmas song from naked Bill Nighy. All that’s missing is a lame mistletoe gag. Love Actually is thoroughly embedded in the holiday.
What’s more, don’t we have enough Christmas movies featuring Santa anyway? The answer is yes.
Wrapping Up With a Cinnamon Stick
Is Love Actually a surface level movie? The open-ended, gaps-unfilled nature allows for it, but that’s not a consistent reading. The movie definitely speaks specifically to how we deal with initial attraction as it either festers or is allowed to blossom, showing us a lot of people avoiding the leap and how that exacerbates their situation further. It creates comedy by placing people in situations where they think they’re making fools of themselves when they’re, in fact, endearing themselves to the person they like. It starts from a position that true, inexplicable, fall-on-your-face love is real — so if you can’t buy that in bulk, you’re going to be beyond the movie’s reach.
After all, it’s about risking getting the shit kicked out of you by love and learning that it, actually, is all around you.
And if nothing else convinces you of the movie’s brilliance, here are three words that should: Spider-man King Wenceslas.