Love, Actually Is Emotion-Porn

So here is my piping hot take on the film Love, Actually:

Everyone seems to like this film. Even I like it, despite finding most of the storylines absurd. I have seen it a few times, and even though I see more and more problems with it every time I think of it, I’d probably watch it again.

But why? Almost everything about it is unrealistic, problematic, and kind of weird. Why are any of these characters doing any of the things they are doing, and why do we find it so appealing? For example, if you come home to find your wife in bed with your brother, you should probably deal with your emotional pain in some way, maybe go to therapy, instead of compulsively proposing to the next woman you meet whose main asset seems to be that you can’t communicate with her in any way. There is no way that this is a healthy start to a relationship.

If your son says he likes a girl at school, why don’t you tell him to go and talk to her, rather than…learn drums?

If you love your best friend’s wife, maybe do anything, anything, except film creepy close-ups of her during her wedding for your own personal use. Is this romantic?

And so on. Yet all of this seems to bypass our critical faculties and hit an emotional nerve that many people cherish, and if you try to discuss how deeply strange every story is, you just sound like a grinch.

So there must be something this movie is getting right, something independent of any realism or logic. It must be that these characters are expressing some type of human fantasy that operates beyond reason, a mysterious subconscious urge we all relate to even though if we knew any of these people in real life we would definitely not be on board with their behaviours. (A Prime Minister using the privileges of his position to sexually pursue the secretary he just fired, for example. This seemed weird even in 2003.)

So here’s the hot take: this movie is emotion-porn. It expresses a deep emotional fantasy that says: because you have affection and desire, this is good, and when you express your noble affections and desires, you will experience only good consequences, and the other person will benefit as much as you.

(And the term “emotion-porn” is a very carefully chosen, given that this film has more references to porn than any other feel-good romantic Christmas film ever made. Bill Nighy’s ideal Christmas is watching porn with his manager, two of the characters meet by performing sex acts on camera, and we’ve already covered Rick Grimes’ wedding wank tape.)

It therefore works on the same emotional logic as the Incel movement: liking someone should be enough, and if only they could see how much you like them, they should reciprocate. If they don’t, the entire world is wrong and against you. In the real world, this philosophy renders people unable to understand how their own actions are connected to any consequences, especially ones that involve the independent emotional lives of other human beings. In the film, there are no negative consequences at all. You never have to think beyond the wonderful purity of your noble, love-fuelled emotions.

For example, if you go to your best friend’s house on Christmas Day so that you can secretly tell his new wife that you really love her, you will definitely cause negative consequences for all the people involved and probably everyone else in your wider social network as well. It is very unlikely that your Kiera Knightly will be charmed by this creepy act of idealisation, treachery, and selfishness, in what amounts to an underhanded power-play to control a corner of her emotional life for the rest of your friendship while you continue to pretend to be her husband’s best friend. Is this secret really never going to come out in some devastating way? The fact that Love, Actually has her respond to his creepy overtures by kissing him in a charming, appreciative way is the perfect expression of this fantasy. A pure desire was expressed, and its purity was appreciated and reciprocated, and everyone benefited.

Every story serves the same fantasy:

Bill Nighy honours his sweet friendship with his manager by recording an awful Christmas song: it goes to number one in the charts. Everyone is happy because of love. They then watch porn together.
Rick Grimes tells Keira Knightly he loves her “without expectation of reciprocation.” Everyone is happy because of love.
Colin Firth is grieving after his wife cheats on him- he dives straight into another marriage with no understanding of the person he is marrying. Everyone is happy because of love.
The Prime Minister wants to shag his secretary. This is love. When the American President wants to shag the same secretary, that’s an abuse of power. The Prime Minister immediately revises the nation’s foreign policy in an improvised speech to show how much he loves her. Everyone is happy because of love.
Cute child actor is in love with a girl at school, so he goes through several elaborate rites of passage to prove his love with dramatic actions, and, without having ever talked to her and without knowing anything about each other, she is won over by this. Everyone is happy because of love.
Martin Freeman expresses his affection for a co-worker and of course she reciprocates and there are no negative consequences. Their job is, hilariously, acting as body doubles for what is probably a soft porn film. (Effectively an excuse to shoe-horn some more porn into the film.)

The two stories that might seem to challenge this fantasy really just reinforce it another way:

The first is Laura Linney’s storyline. She is love with a Hot Man From Work and they go home together, but she keeps getting phone calls from her unstable brother so she has to go be with him instead. Hot Man From Work is disappointed but it is not clear whether he knows what is going on, and he seems to be willing to meet again another day. There is no real conflict or negative consequence, simply the trade-off of one commitment for another. The movie then drops this plot line completely, before any negative consequences can become apparent. Her feelings for Hot Man From Work and her love for her brother are both expressed, and we the audience feel this as the positive consequence of a moral, loving choice.

The other story involves Alan Rickman, who ruins his marriage by buying a Christmas present for a woman who is not his wife. This storyline could almost represent a negative consequence, however, the film does its best to remove all the agency from Alan Rickman’s character. He doesn’t have to do anything to impress this other woman, she is just a paper-thin female character who doesn’t seem to have any motivation or personality other than to be sexually available to him without question. She must be a devilish temptress because she literally wears devil horns (symbolism). He doesn’t take any actions to pursue her, and seems to buy the present against his own better judgement and with much angst and confusion. When it is uncovered, he immediately apologises and says he was an idiot to buy it. This is the closest the film comes to addressing any negative consequences from a decision based on love, and it is with a character who barely makes any decisions at all and could hardly be said to be doing it for love.

And even though his wife Emma Thompson stands her ground and immediately separates from him as a result of his betrayal, the film makes sure to include a loving glance from her at the end to show that even so, she still loves him. His failure wasn’t what he did, but what he didn’t do. If he expressed his love, everyone would have been happy. His real crime was letting the lure of loveless sex lead him astray from the purity of love.

Lastly, there’s the story involving an English man who meets some American women who immediately fall in love with him. To be honest I’ve never understood this one. Is it meant to be funny? It is so preposterously unrealistic that I can’t tell whether we are meant to laugh or ask some serious questions about whatever dark Freudian projections lie at the heart of English national identity. In any case, everyone is happy because of love.

Perhaps this is meant to be a wonderful escapist fantasy we are not meant to take seriously. Certainly at the time this film came out I took it as such, and delighted in some of its more charming excesses. However, people really, really seem to love it, and have done for many years, which makes me doubt whether it’s really escapism or rather a surprisingly effective affirmation of something deeper within us.

It is possible to watch escapist fair with an analytical view of the characters involved, as with Love Island, for example. Part of the fun of this sort of show seems to be to get stuck into the characters and what they said and did to whom and when, following who wants to be with whom, who makes a move and succeeds, who makes a move and is rebuffed, etc. No matter how outlandish the presentation, all of this is very interesting and relatable because it involves one person’s desire and another person’s independent response, like real life. But it’s not really possible to relate to the characters in Love, Actually, because there is essentially only one character: the broad desire for validation and emotional recognition free of obstruction from other people. Act like this in real life and you will soon be acting as if other people have no value. There is nothing romantic or escapist about this at all.

So there you have it. Love, Actually glorifies a type consequence-free and idealised version of affection and desire which appeals to us precisely because is completely impossible with actual human beings who have thoughts and feelings of their own. Its chief focus is a desire that says “look at me and my desire”, not “I care about another person.” When people think like this in real life, they become raging narcissists and/or pathetic incels full of self-gratifying rage against those they believe have unfairly rejected them, especially people with thoughts and feelings different to their own (i.e, everyone). When played out in a quirky Christmas film, however, our emotional centres apparently can’t get enough it.