Love Actually has a reputation as a feel-good classic, a holiday season staple that’s as hilarious as it is heartwarming. The 2003 film boasts a star-studded international cast—including Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Keira Knightley, and Liam Neeson—in a loosely connected collection of vignettes about how love is all around us. But if we look closer, we can see that many of its ideas about love are, well, kind of messed up, even by romantic-comedy standards. Here are some of the film’s most Toxic Takeaways, and what we can—and shouldn’t—learn from them.
Love Actually has a reputation as a feel-good classic — a holiday season staple that’s as hilarious as it is heartwarming. The 2003 film boasts a star-studded international cast, acting in a loosely connected collection of vignettes about how love is all around us, in its many different and wondrous forms. But if we look closer, we can see that many of its ideas about love are, well, kind of messed up, even by romantic-comedy standards. From infidelity to objectification to borderline stalking, Love Actually’s version of love — actually? It’s pretty unhealthy, and not exactly something anyone should emulate.
Here are some of the film’s most Toxic Takeaways, and what we can — and shouldn’t — learn from them.
Toxic Takeaway #1: Limerence Is The Same As Love
Romantic comedies are often in love with the idea of The One — the perfect, predestined soulmate who will make our lives complete. But most romantic comedies aren’t about love. They’re about limerence, a state of infatuation or obsession with somebody that you’d like to have a relationship with. Limerence can develop into genuine love, but it’s defined largely by those affections being unrequited, which often leads to unhealthy fixations that are only intensified by their being unreciprocated.
Love Actually offers us several examples of limerence, and they all stem from male characters who idealize their dream girl to the point of her being a total fantasy — and occasionally, regardless of her own wishes. As Holly Williams wrote for The Independent, the film “treats women like pawns in a male fantasy.”
One of the most famous — and obvious — examples is Mark’s pursuit of Juliet, the wife of his best friend, Peter. Mark loves Juliet from afar, intentionally keeping her at a distance, to the point where she’s convinced Mark doesn’t even like her. Juliet remains an object of idealized limerence to Mark, who reveals his fixation through the creepily obsessive footage he films at her wedding — a video that literally
cuts out everything but his own narrow view of her. Meanwhile, Mark’s sole conversations with Juliet are cold and distant, until, at last, he shows up at her house uninvited to confess his love — again, without ever actually talking to her. Even the actor who played Mark, Andrew Lincoln, has said he questioned this behavior with Love Actually director Richard Curtis, telling Vanity Fair, “I kept saying to Richard, ‘Are you sure I’m not going to come off as a creepy stalker?’” And he’s far from the only one to suggest it.
In a study on media portrayals of “persistent pursuit,” psychologist Dr. Julia Lippman found that romantic movies where these kinds of behaviors are portrayed as part of a regular courtship could lead to “an increase in stalking-supportive beliefs.” And while Juliet and Mark don’t end up together, we still see Mark being rewarded for his persistence. Mark’s inability to move past his limerence, even after Juliet is happily married, is troubling in itself. But it’s even more disturbing how Love Actually normalizes his obsessive behavior — even turning it into an iconic romantic gesture.
We see an even more egregious example of limerence, not love, in the story of Colin Firth’s Jamie, who becomes infatuated with his Portuguese housekeeper, Aurelia. Since they don’t speak the same language, Aurelia is little more than a blank canvas for Jamie to project his fantasies onto: He’s unable to understand Aurelia or get to know her in any meaningful way beyond a superficial attraction. The film does portray their growing feelings for each other as mutual.
Jamie: “It’s my favorite time of day, driving you.” - Love Actually
Yet it’s an unlikely, if not impossible romance based solely in longing looks — they fall in love with versions of each other that they’ve largely invented.
Sam’s crush on his classmate Joanna can at least be excused by his age. Many psychologists have noted the connection between limerence and the absence of love from our primary caregivers in childhood. And in Sam’s case, this would be understandable, seeing as he’s just lost his mom — who, in a blatantly Freudian twist, is also named Joanna. Sam idealizes Joanna, to the point where he creates a fantasy version of himself just to get her attention.
Sam: “I thought maybe if I was in the band and played absolutely superbly, there’s a chance that she might actually fall in love with me.” - Love Actually
And Sam knows little about Joanna except that she’s a singer — and he admits that she barely knows him. Yet he still claims she’s “the one.” In Love Actually, it’s never too early to develop unhealthy ideas about romance.
Of course, the film doesn’t just put women on a pedestal. It also turns them into lust objects. This is most evident in its story about Colin, whose failure to woo women does not prompt some intense self-examination of his many faults.
Colin: “I’ve just worked out why I can’t find true love.”
Tony: “Why’s that?”
Colin: “English girls. They’re stuck up, you see. And I’m primarily attracted to girls who are, you know, cooler, game for a laugh.” - Love Actually
Rather, it inspires Colin to head to Wisconsin, to find girls who might be attracted to his accent. Incredibly, Love Actually rewards his fantasy as well: Almost immediately, Colin meets several women, who appear to be down for exactly that. It’s a storyline that borders on pornography — and one that says a lot about how Love Actually views women itself.
Toxic Takeaway #2: Falling For Your Boss Is Romantic
Love Actually suggests that not only will we eventually meet The One, there’s a pretty good chance it’ll be at the office. The film gives us several workplace romances — many of them between employer
and employee, and quite a few of them involving older men lusting after a younger woman. They’re love stories that, as any HR department will tell you, are professionally inappropriate. And in a MeToo age, especially, they feel even more like workplace sexual harassment.
The romance between Jamie and Aurelia isn’t just between a man and his fantasy. It’s one between a boss and employee — and again, one who’s considerably younger. Beyond their age difference, Aurelia is in a uniquely vulnerable position: Not only can she not communicate with Jamie, she’s literally there to serve him, leaving him with complete control over her.
The married Harry likewise lusts after his own employee, Mia. Mia is new to the office, and Harry is her direct supervisor, meaning their affair could have dramatic consequences for both of them. Yet the film suggests that this is largely a problem for Harry: It sets up Mia as a femme fatale, whose sexy outfits and flirtations pose a threatening temptation.
Mia: “I’ll just be hanging around under the mistletoe, hoping to be kissed.” - Love Actually
She’s made out to be a seductive villain, who leads the decent man astray.
This imbalance is perhaps most evident in the story of the Prime Minister, David, who actually fires his staff member Natalie, solely because he’s attracted to her — and after deciding that his own lust is too much of a distraction. David is contrasted against the more obviously lecherous American president, so we’re meant to see David as charming — and his implicit defense of Natalie as chivalrous. Yet he doesn’t actually address the President’s harassment directly — and in fact, he ends up punishing her. Natalie even feels compelled to apologize. There is obvious romantic tension between the two. Still, there’s no question that the power dynamic between Natalie and David is irrevocably skewed, and he’s willing to abuse it whenever it suits him.
Toxic Takeaway #3: Repress Your True Feelings
The characters in Love Actually are connected through bloodlines and friendships, jobs, and pure circumstance. But the thing that most unites them is their complete inability to communicate. Again, Jamie and Aurelia have a clear language barrier — but at least Jamie tries learning Portuguese. Of course, this doesn’t make his reasoning for loving her any clearer — or more articulate.
Still, however misguided, at least Jamie is open with Aurelia. There’s an even more insurmountable lack of communication between the couples who can understand each other. Sam spends his time pining after Joanna and even learning the drums, rather than just telling her how he feels. And it goes without saying that Mark, Juliet, and Peter might have all been better off if Mark had just been honest about his affections sooner, rather than playing mind games with Juliet, or letting his cue cards do the talking.
This emotional repression isn’t limited to the film’s romances. Mark, after all, isn’t exactly open with his friend Peter. Likewise, the friendship between aging pop-star Billy Mack and his longtime manager Joe is marked by Billy’s open disrespect — even contempt. When Billy eventually does find himself able to confess what Joe means to him, he masks it behind more churlish aggression.
Billy Mack: “I’ve gone and spent most of my life with a chubby employee. It might be that the people I love is, in fact, you.” - Love Actually
And he immediately covers up his emotions with more macho posturing.
In Love Actually, even Daniel grieving his wife is frowned upon.
Karen: “Get a grip. People hate sissies. No one’s ever gonna shag you if you cry all the time.” - Love Actually
Maybe some of this can be chalked up to these characters being British — the English are not exactly known for being open with their emotions, after all. But they all have a troubling aversion to vulnerability, even with the characters they supposedly want to share their lives with. Sarah can admit she wants marriage and babies with Karl, but she can’t even be open with him about her own life. Just as the two are on the verge of acting on their attraction, they’re interrupted by a call from her mentally ill brother — a situation that Sarah downplays to Karl, seemingly for fear of spoiling the fantasy. Her reluctance to tell him the truth suggests she doesn’t really trust him — and Karl’s reaction suggests he’s not really interested in talking about it, anyway.
Meanwhile, Harry’s dalliance with Mia can be chalked up to his inability to communicate directly not only with her but with his wife. Their marriage seems to have reached a rather cold impasse — and it’s clear that they’ve grown distant. Yet rather than talk about their problems, they hide them behind a mask of passive-aggressive digs and deflections. Even after Karen discovers Harry’s betrayal with Mia, she intentionally hides her pain. Right up to the end, they can’t seem to be direct with each other. And we’re left to wonder what each of them is really feeling — and suspect that neither will ever really know as well.
Toxic Takeaway #4: Love Is About Grand Romantic Gestures
Instead of just talking to each other, most of the couples in the film communicate through the romantic comedy staple of the “grand romantic gesture.” These showy public declarations are the logical culmination of a film that mistakes limerence for love, disregards communication and respect, and always puts the men in control. Thus we have spectacles like Jamie flying to Portugal, gathering a crowd, then bringing them with him to Aurelia’s job to propose. Or David tracking down Natalie, knocking on random doors until he finds her, then sharing a first kiss that’s literally on stage. The film suggests that, regardless of the actual relationship you may have with someone, you can will love into being by simply declaring it loudly and ostentatiously enough.
Daniel: “You’ve seen the films, kiddo. It ain’t over til it’s over.” - Love Actually
These moments certainly seem romantic, but they’re missing the one thing that makes true love possible, and that the film is largely lacking: intimacy. Love Actually’s romances take place in front of audiences, in crowded airports, or from behind the protective veil of cue cards. Love may be everywhere, like the film says, but it only truly develops between two people, away from everyone and everything else — nurtured and earned in a way that no big, romantic gesture could ever replace.
Despite all these toxic takeaways, there are some true love stories in Love Actually. For all their friction, Billy Mack and Joe do share a genuine bond. Perhaps its most touching relationship is the one that develops between Daniel and Sam, as stepfather and stepson. And if you accept the 2017 charity special Red Nose Actually as canon, Jamie and Aurelia, David and Natalie, and Sam and Joanna are all still very much in love — and Mark has moved on to another fantasy object. As screenwriter Emma Freud suggested on Twitter, even Harry and Karen have probably stayed together, if only by further quashing their feelings.
Ultimately, Love Actually is a film that’s all about the sentiments and sensations of love, rather than the truths — and of course, that doesn’t detract from how it makes us feel inside, or how it makes us laugh. Like any other holiday treat, there’s nothing wrong with indulging in it — so long as we recognize that Love Actually is only about love, superficially.
David: “If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.” - Love Actually
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Moses, Toby. “The Patriarchy, Actually. What Our Favourite Christmas Films Mean in 2016.” The Guardian, 16 Dec. 2016.
Truffaut-Wong, Olivia. “Why The ‘Love, Actually’ Plot With David, Natalie, & The President Is Especially Cringey Today.” Bustle, 11 Dec. 2017.
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Withers, Rachel. “Love Actually’s Workplace Harassment Feels Especially Egregious at the End of 2017.” Slate, 21 Dec. 2017.