I did not grow up with the spiritual significance of Christmas in my home, so Christmas was about three things: food, toys, and Christmas movies. I am still a little traumatized by a stop-action drummer boy in my childhood memory, but if you swap “family” for “toys,” Christmas hasn’t changed much for me. Movies, in particular, have become a family tradition.
Some of these are the heartwarming, nostalgic pieces, like the 1994 version of A Miracle on 34th Street or Ralphie’s tale, A Christmas Story. Some are new classics, like Elf and different versions of the Grinch. And, of course, there is A Christmas Carol in its various permutations.
But I also have the guilty pleasures. Christmas isn’t Christmas without The National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The RV looks so good parked in the street, doesn’t it? And just last Christmas I discovered the British hit Love Actually. Crammed with classic lines and big name actors, this bittersweet montage on the edge actually has a lot to teach about love stories today (note: this probably won’t make any sense to anyone who hasn’t seen it).
#1. The Importance of the Nativity Lobster
Emma Thompson is brilliant in this film as the cynically supportive sister and the frumpy middle-aged stay-at-home mother who feels her marriage slipping away. And who can forget her incredulity at her daughter’s declaration that she made first lobster in the school nativity play?
I doubt the incongruity of a non-kosher shellfish at the Jewish boy’s birth ever occurred the writers. Any incongruity would do. It is a holiday mishmash, the tugging together of all the traditions that come with Christmas nowadays.
Anyone with any historical sensibility is likely to be offended, even if they chuckle. But step back for a moment and see what the producers have accomplished in the Christmas concert, which is the unlikely climax of the film: The tart lives next to the chubby love interest. The Prime Minister arrives to see his niece and nephew’s concert quite by accident. Claudia Schiffer is part of the local home and school association. And then there is the Christmas angel, Rowan Atkinson.
All of the characters are connected, all their stories are entwined. They have managed to make London, one of the world’s largest and most diverse cities, into just another small town. As the class-based, impersonal world that Dickens prophesies comes about, Love Actually brings us back to the nostalgia of past days, where we know everyone and everyone is connected. I think this is an important fiction for our world today.
#2. Love and Sex and Other Things
One of my favourite storylines in Love Actually is that of John and Judy. These two strangers are paired up as body doubles for the steamy bits of some big film production. I know this will cause some folk to scratch their heads, but I think that Love Actually turns one of Hollywood’s storylines upside down, namely, the storyline of falling in love.
What do I mean? If I were to track how people fall in love in Hollywood, it looks like this:
Step 1: Meet through a humorous accident or touching synchronicity of events
Step 2: After some first date or combative encounter, have lots of sex
Step 3: If the sex is very good, learn one another’s names and habits and career ambitions
Step 4: Fall in love despite dramatic tension, or move on
The basic equation of love stories is that love follow sex.
And that’s what happens with John and Judy, sort of. They play-act a number of sexual scenarios, all the while chatting about traffic and holiday busyness. The chatter is everything you might expect on a first date, except the shy, bumbling couple is completely nude with dozens of people watching under the bright lights.
Through the course of their time at work, John finally asks Judy out for a drink. They have a great time, and John walks Judy to her door. With perfect Marin-Freeman awkwardness he hesitates, and she gives him a little kiss and a Hallmark-card style greeting. It is a lovely moment, and the highlight of their year.
There is not a lot of innocence in the lands of the silver screen. I think Hollywood misses the innocence, the sweetness, the sheer goodness of falling in love. I think that is a storyline we could recover.
#3. You May End Up With Claudia Schiffer at the End, And That Might Not Be the Most Important Part
One of the storylines many of us play out at Christmas is one of grief. How many are celebrating this Christmas alone for the first time, torn apart by divorce, relocation, and death? Think of all those who are burying a child this Christmas, or sitting at cancer’s bedside. Grief is real in the midst of cinnamon sticks and sprigs of holly.
In the honesty of Love Actually, Liam Neeson’s character, Daniel, plays out the rawness of that grief. His perspective only shifts when he finds that he is able to help his stepson get the girl. The prepubescent love pains are real as Sam and his stepdad do the best they can to help Sam win the girl of his preteen dreams.
It is, of course, a grand program in self-forgetfulness. Sometimes grief requires a project, so Daniel is pleased to help. In his grief and in his self-forgetfulness, Daniel thinks nothing of his own love life, now vacant with the death of his beloved wife..
But there is Claudia Schiffer. Daniel’s wife, as she was dying, asked him to bring Claudia Schiffer as his date to her funeral. Couples in love have their private jokes, and this little joke of theirs survives the parting of death.
In the synchronicity of Love Actually and the impossibility of film0making, Daniel does end up with Claudia Schiffer. But it doesn’t matter. The grieving widower falling love with the stunning celebrity is the background to much greater stories, like eleven-year-olds who like each other. The celebrity snag is a nice point of humour, a soft touch, but not the main story.
#4. The Classic Fool Can See it Coming
Not all the tales go well, as we will see. The Emma Thompson storyline is particularly tragic as her executive husband is hunted by his incredibly fit secretary (the tart, mentioned above, played by Heike Makatsch). He is prey, and is caught.
When he is confronted by his wife, he says it, “Oh, God. I am so in the wrong. A classic fool.”
He is a fool. But the most heartbreaking line is Emma Thompson’s: “Yes, but you’ve also made a fool out of me. You’ve made the life I lead foolish, too.”
I could hang on that line forever.
We had a conversation after watching the film about who was more guilty, the tart-predator or the fool-prey. I have some sympathy for the prey, but I’m going to point the finger at the classic fool, the Alan Rickman character, because a classic fool can see it coming.
Let’s face it, Rickman’s character was playing with fire. First, he hired this secretary who is so incredibly… fit. Seriously. Then he plays with her, allowing himself to be flattered by her advancements. And then he decides to give her a special Christmas gift. It is at this moment, when things are most dire, that he has his chance to pull out.
Rowan Atkinson is, of course, a Christmas angel, and Alan Rickman’s character has the chance to get out and quit his folly.
But he doesn’t. He goes back to the store, and purchases the gift, and gives it to the tart.
The classic fool should see it coming.
#5. It Doesn’t Always Work Out in the End
Which leads us to the next lesson. It is pretty tough to write a true tragedy today. But there are enough threads in Love Actually that the writers can allow for some reality. And what is most real? It doesn’t always work out in the end.
One of the characters has had a crush on a co-worker for years. The time finally comes for them to connect, but her brother phones. He is obviously mentally ill, and calls his sister dozens of times a day. She drops everything and goes to him, calming him down, being mother rather than sister.
What’s intriguing about this storyline is that they have the courage to let it play out. She cannot let go of her enabling, the addiction to her brother’s need. She has no room for love.
Some stories work out to a ridiculous extreme. Sam finds the girl. Colin discovers that Wisconsin really is a frozen Budweiser commercial. And American loses (you’ll have to watch to get it).
But there are other stories that don’t work too. There is the affair, and unrequited love, and the tart is still just a tart at the end of the film. Not all stories end well.
#6. Don’t Underestimate the Balcony Scene
One of the great themes of Love Actually is printed onto a big white card in bold letters: AT CHRISTMAS YOU TELL THE TRUTH. It is a brilliant theme. Though I think it is the opposite of true in most families, it sets the stage for what are some of the sweeter moments in Love Actually, the balcony scenes.
There are four of them. First, Sam finally gets his girl with a little help from the Christmas angel. International border agents are involved. Second, there is the statement of unrequited love from a desperate friend. This is where the white cards come in. And, always unforgettable, Keira Knightly. Third, the prime minister, played by Hugh Grant, begs for a moment with the chubby servant girl who has stolen his heart (played by Martine McCutcheon, who is not chubby, of course).
The fourth balcony scene is more traditional:
Jamie doesn’t know Portuguese, and Aurélia doesn’t know English. It is a great scene full of phrases pulled from K-5 International Language Training Programs:
Jamie: Beautiful Aurelia… I’ve come here with a view to asking you…to marriage me. I know I seems an insane person because I hardly knows you but sometimes things are so transparency, they don’t need evidential proof.…. Of course I don’t expecting you to be as foolish as me, and of course I prediction you say no…. but it’s Christmas and I just wanted to…check.
Aurelia: Thank you. That will be nice. Yes is being my answer. Easy question.
I love this. It is sweet and lovely. And she says yes. A great balcony scene.
But what each of these balcony scenes teach us is the great risk. I understand that we tell a lot of lies to keep peace at Christmas. But maybe we should learn this from Love Actually. It’s Christmas, so it is time to tell the truth. It’s Christmas, so may we should check. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson Love Actually can teach us.