It was hard to rewatch Love Actually, even as an attempt to comprehend my repulsion, because it is garbage. Each individual thread of the ensemble is stupider than the last. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the wedding scene, in which the crowd stands up and suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, starts playing “All You Need Is Love” (interrupting the “Marseillaise” for some reason), inspired all those viral video weddings, which is enough of a crime for any film to be guilty of.
Still, much of the rom-com creepiness of Love Actually isn’t so much its own fault as the fault of all the films it’s so derivative of. There is all the standard stalkerish bullshit here — comedy scenes that, if played with ominous music rather than Christmas carols over them, would be straight out of horror.
In the film’s most famous scene, a hopelessly besotted Andrew Lincoln, in love with his best friend’s wife, holds up a bunch of signs, à la “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” while Keira Knightley does that thing she does with her mouth that sells so much perfume. With even the slightest amount of context, the whole business is super, super weird and inappropriate — it literally begins with a pronouncement for the woman, as the object of desire, to be silent.
The Colin Firth plot, in which he plays a bumbling writer falling in love with his Portuguese housekeeper, may be the most despicable. A tip for men: If you fall in love with a woman who doesn’t speak your language and whose job is to bring you food and drinks, you’re not falling in love. You just want a woman to serve you.
Hugh Grant, also bumbling, also falls in love with the woman whose job is to bring him drinks in the afternoon. Hugh Grant is unendurable in himself, the stammering English aristocrat who can only play the comedy of embarrassment. The comedy of embarrassment appears to mock, but surreptitiously justifies, the social codes of the class system. It’s at the core of writer-director Richard Curtis’s fantasy of Englishness, which is why Grant stars in all his biggest movies: We’re rich and good-looking and super-educated, but we’re also as much victims of this ridiculous order that keeps us in a state of permanent arbitrary power. Isn’t it frightful?
The Grant thread of the narrative is where the politics of 2018 and the politics of Love Actually meet up, in twinned stories of pointless English defiance. In 2003, the defiance was about England’s so-called “special relationship” with the United States, a phrase which has always been hilarious to non-English people. America has a “special relationship” with Great Britain the way a professional athlete has a “special relationship” with each groupie in each city he travels to. In the film, the American president offers a vague threat: “I’ll give you anything you ask for, as long as it’s not something I don’t want to give.” Nobody knows what he’s talking about, and Grant’s anger is equally vague. His swelling speech is defiance for its own sake. Just like Brexit.
But Grant’s defiance isn’t totally without cause even if it’s without purpose. Why does he takes a stand again the United States? Because he accidentally catches the Billy Bob Thornton president making a move on the woman whose job it is to serve him tea in the afternoon. The whole confrontation boils down to his violated right to the flesh of English womanhood. “We may be a small country, but we are a great one,” Grant says in the middle of all this pointlessness. You can find your own sexual implications.
Which brings us to Natalie. Love Actually is certainly not the only movie to portray a normal-sized woman as ludicrously fat. The date of the film’s release offers an explanation if not an excuse. Love Actually came out at the end of the 1990s, right after heroin chic had dominated London fashion. Natalie is what? Size six? She is described as a “plumpy” with “thighs the size of tree trunks” and a “sizeable ass.” It is literally offered as a comical situation that powerful men would want to sleep with her.
The main thrust of the politics in Love Actually is not to be found in the prime minister thread, though. It’s to be found in the final school concert. All English popular culture derives from their school system — that is my grand unifying theory of English popular culture, and I’ve never known it to fail. It’s not just Harry Potter, the most obvious example. The popularity of Top Gear, which was shown in over 200 countries by the end of its run, had little to do with the subject of cars. Top Gear was about two little twerps trying to keep themselves in the good graces of the school bully. The bully was always outwitting the masters at the BBC until he was expelled. There is a direct line between bad boy Flashman from Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Jeremy Clarkson.
Love Actually is a film about Englishness, therefore it is a film about class structure, therefore it is a film about school. The lower classes are represented by Natalie and the young man who goes to America because American girls are easy. The upper class — naturally the ruling class — is represented by Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, and Emma Thompson. Everybody else is in the middle.
The lynchpin of the film’s fantasy is that school concert, which all the characters attend, tying the various threads of the ensemble together. The idea of this film is that, in the end, for the children, England puts away class distinctions, and everybody sits down together at the table of brotherhood to listen to an American girl sing a cover of “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” The neoliberal vision purified.
It is a completely ludicrous notion, needless to say, that the prime minister’s nieces and nephews would attended the same school concert as the family of the woman who serves him tea. The current cabinet is five times more likely to have received a private education than the general public. (Note that Richard Curtis served as head boy at Harrow.) The English school system is the engine of class structure, and the education it provides, the codes it steeps children in, become the principal justification for the class structure in adult life. The sorting hat is very real if much more specific in where it sorts the real English little boys and girls. That’s why school is the core subject of English popular culture: It is where the meanings of people’s lives in society are determined.
Love Actually is a romcom defined by the absence of any sensual pleasure for its characters. Nobody fucks. Nobody eats.
In the middle class school I attended, the boys were carved into levels within forms. Everybody knew whose family name was in the Domesday Book, I remember. Even though we were 10 years old, you could have lined up every boy in my form from the highest to lowest class, and everybody would have known exactly which spot they fit into. The system made no sense to me when I arrived; I stayed just long enough for it to make sense. Then I left.
I remember one school event. It wasn’t a Christmas concert. It was a spring fete. My mother, who was at the time studying bulimia and anorexia, attended with me. She packed for us what Canadian families bring to their picnics — plums and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and juice boxes, the stuff of sensible nourishment. And when we arrived on the rolling grounds of the cricket field, that embodiment of willful insularity, the other boys’ families, dressed in suits and ties, had spread out the majesty of their hampers onto traditional checkered blankets to display cheeses and cold chicken with pears, champagne, and strawberries with cream.
My mother and I realized our error and slunk off to a small hill to sit down with our backs to a chain-link fence. The bread of exile was dry, the peanut butter sticky in the mouth. The plums of exclusion were mealy. On the cricket field below, the champagne bottles stood bright and stately as Georgian castles belonging to pedophile aristocrats. The strawberries looked divine and hateful.
The English devour their lost empire continuously. They drink the tea made possible by the opium wars on China, with patents ensured by the imposition of freedom of trade, with cheap sugar cubes made possible by the slave trade to the West Indies. Every citizen, no matter how poor, may eat the memory of the conquest of foreigners every day.
By three to one, British people believe the empire is “something to be proud of rather than ashamed of.” They believe they left the colonies better off than they found them. A third believe the empire should still exist. Because they are suffused with these historical delusions, they are in a state of radical misunderstanding about their place in the world. Brexit has revealed their complete indifference to the vast ocean of suffering sprung from their history. It is simply of no concern to them that the Irish border may well be thrown back into the state of tormented horror for which their responsibility is obvious.
The greatest feast in the history of the Earth was the Delhi Durbar of Jan. 1, 1877, the ceremony declaring Victoria the empress of India, Kaisar-i-Hind, which took place during the middle of the Bengal famine. About 84,000 officials and members of the Indian aristocracy gathered to be shuffled in a political sleight of hand. Lord Lytton, the viceroy, acknowledged the scam in a secret letter to Lord Salisbury on May 11, 1876: “We certainly cannot afford to give them any increase in political power independent of our own,” he wrote about the Indians. “Fortunately for us, however, they are easily affected by sentiment, and susceptible to the influence of symbols to which facts very inadequately correspond.” The minutiae of symbolic negotiation consumed every attention of all levels of the Indian political classes, the business of interweaving the antique aristocracy and a new code manufactured out of English cynicism and Victorian fantasies of feudalism. (Rudyard Kipling’s father designed the new coats of arms.)
To accommodate the visitors, 100 villages were cleared in a space of five miles, preventing the planting of the winter crops. An entire road system had to be developed to accommodate the ceremony and the parades that followed the inauguration of a Royal Cup Race, loyal addresses, exhibitions, marches, and feasts. Feasts above all: The Maharaja Scindia alone spent 20,000 lakhs on a single meal. Meanwhile, the estimates of the deaths from famine in Bengal during the period of the Durbar alone was a hundred thousand people. The pariah dogs grew fat on the bodies of the starved, abandoned children. That’s the empire that England built. That’s how it was built.
The basic irony of Brexit is that all the devices and frauds that England manufactured to construct and to justify its empire have come home to haunt them. You could easily describe the English today as Lord Lytton once described the Indians: “They are easily affected by sentiment, and susceptible to the influence of symbols to which facts very inadequately correspond.” The strategy of divide and rule which all around the world stirred minor historical differences into longstanding conflicts for the sake of the imperial interest (see Ireland, the Middle East, India) now threatens the United Kingdom itself. Primordial loathings are emerging. Why would the Scots, who have been in the Union since 1707, stay any longer than they have to? The innate sense of English superiority has led them into imminent humiliation.
There is justice in it, though not the kind of justice the world needs.