I’m sure many of these takedowns of Love, Actually have been around since the movie first came out, but this is the first season I’ve really noticed them all. The movie had already evolved from surprise hit to unabashed guilty pleasure, a sort of annual holiday ritual up there with A Christmas Story or Miracle on 34th Street. Who among us has not read, on social media, someone declaring their unembarrassed delight at discovering Love, Actually playing on TV, even though the movie has become so popular that it really wasn’t a guilty pleasure.
And now, the backlash.
A romcom in which two characters find love because they are both interesting, clever, funny, accomplished, kind, confident, attractive—insert your favorite adjective here—and play equal parts in winning of the affection of the other would not only fail to scratch this itch, it would be depressing. We don’t go to movies to watch people more interesting, clever, funny etc etc than ourselves achieve love and happiness in a context very much like that of our real lives—that’s what we are watching in our real lives. We go to movies to be reassured that we can have those things without being transformed ourselves. The viewer-identification characters here, then, need to seem basically good and genial—we’re not going to project ourselves onto someone actively unlikable—but also bland and passive enough that they don’t leave us feeling like true love is for people with desirable characteristics we conspicuously lack.
If there’s something to this hypothesis, then, the women in movies like Love, Actually are just as underdeveloped and lacking in agency as women in (say) macho action movies, but for completely different reasons. In the male-targeted fantasy, women are essentially prizes to be won by the hero the male viewer identifies with. In the female-targeted fantasy, they’re equally ciphers because these are fundamentally not fantasies of self-transformation, which means the viewer-identification figure needs to be a vacuum anyone can step into as they already are. In movies about external goals, we can accept needing to become better in some way (through our onscreen surrogates) over the course of the film in order to achieve them. But people want to be loved for who they already are—to find the person who wants just what we already have, rather than becoming what the other person needs. That, in a way, is the most fantastical element: It is the external trappings of love without (at least for the character the viewer identifies with) the selflessness or transformative process that real love and real relationships—even more than Jedi training or a semester at Hogwarts—always entail.
Here’s one in a different voice, the voice of Jezebel, goddess of female wrath.
In keeping with that theme, Alan Rickman's secretary is just constantly pointing at her vagina and licking her own face, like she's a porn actress who forgot she was doing a mainstream movie. Or, more accurately, like the character is a porn actress who forgot she was working in a real office. I don't mean that there's anything wrong with porn actresses, or that the actress who plays Alan Rickman's secretary is anything but lovely here, I mean that LOVE ACTUALLY SEES NO PROBLEM WITH TREATING ITS FEMALE CHARACTERS LIKE GIANT BIPEDAL VAGINAS IN SWEATER VESTS.
(Also, she's still looking for a venue for the holiday party and it's only three weeks before Christmas!?!?! This is why you shouldn't hire any non-sentient organ to do clerical work. No matter how sexy it is.)
Anyway, the flirtation is a problem because Alan Rickman is married to Emma Thompson, but don't worry—she wears foundation garments and talks too much (see above) and therefore deserves to die alone with nothing but Joni Mitchell for comfort.
Laura Linney, the only other female character with some semblance of an inner life, meets a similar fate.
This is a movie made for women by a man.
But it’s not just women who have issues with the movie. In The Atlantic, Christopher Orr declares Love, Actually Is the Least Romantic Film of All Time:
Of the movie’s seven romantic plotlines, too, I think one is rather endearing. Having Martin Freeman and Joanna Page discover they're attracted to one another in the midst of pretty much the least romantic activity possible—being ordered into a variety of rushed, pseudo-erotic poses on a movie set—is a clever conceit, and tidily executed.
As for the rest of the film—which is to say, the bulk of the film—I think it offers up at least three disturbing lessons about love. First, that love is overwhelmingly a product of physical attraction and requires virtually no verbal communication or intellectual/emotional affinity of any kind. Second, 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. And third, that any actual obstacle to romantic fulfillment, however surmountable, is not worth the effort it would require to overcome.