Ten things Love Actually actually taught us about relationships

Ten years on from the schmaltzy Richard Curtis-fest.

It's been ten years since shmaltzy Richard Curtis-fest Love Actually Received-Pronounciation-stuttered across our screens - can you believe it? Yep, it’s one entire decade since the film took on the difficult task of defining not only Christmas but the very meaning of love itself, an emotion which apparently only strikes those in possession of prime London property porn (we're talking mezzanine boudoirs, habitat fairy lights, exposed bricks - the works). Much has changed since those heady days in the early noughties where any meaningful dramatic scene had to be accompanied by third-album Sugababes: Hugh Grant is actually Prime Minister now, for example, and Martine McCutcheon's career is entering a new, post-laxative-yoghurt-advert phase. 

Just in case you thought that the Hairpin's celebratory Love Actually fan fiction wasn't enough of a tribute to the star-studded cinematographic fromage-fest, here are ten invaluable lessons that it taught us about relationships: 

1.) You don't need to speak the same language as someone to fall in love with them.

All you need to do is clean a man's country house (for money, but it helps if the whole time you sweetly give the impression that you're so nice that you'd happily do it for no recompense whatsoever), then jump in a lake with barely any clothes on to rescue the pages of the rubbish crime novel he's writing in solitude because his cock of a brother slept with his missus. Proposal of marriage guaranteed.

2.) Joni Mitchell is the only soundtrack to being cheated on.

In the defining scene of the film, Emma Thompson allows herself a moment to mourn the discovery that her husband (Alan Rickman) is cheating on her by tearfully listening to Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now, then putting on her stiff upper lip and going downstairs to be a mum to her kids. It's as heartbreaking as it is iconic, and as a result no other song will ever quite cut it for those who've been done the dirty on (clouds just never quite look the same once you find out he's gone and put it in another lady), especially not when the person doing that dirty is Severus Snape. 

3.) Looking for a job where you might find the slightly socially inept future love of your life? Naked body doubling is your friend!

All that simulated sex really does wonders for romance, resulting as it does in charmingly awkward, non-sexual English chitchat about the weather that will eventually result in a long-term partnership, the highly-charged and erotic consummation of which presumably takes place shortly following a climacticdate to the nativity play of primary school children. It's a common misconception that these two characters are in meant to be adult movie stars, but in the absence of seeing the female character being upside-down-boned by six-oiled up himbos in a pink corner jacuzzi bath, we're pretty sure they're just stand-ins. After all, he even has the decency to warm up his hands before placing them tentatively on her nipples.

4.) American girls are slutty and wear furry boots. English girls are frigid and don't.

This is the law. Also, if you’re an English boy completely lacking in self-awareness and looking for love, just move to somewhere sexy (like, y’know, Wisconsin) and you’ll probably end up spending the night in a single bed with four naked women. Americans are obsessed with sex (see American President versus British Prime Minister, below) and will therefore soothe your wounded ego, still damaged as it is from the occasion where you slagged off your romantic target's canape cooking efforts in front of her and still expected her to shag you, the uptight British bitch. If Colin were a real person, he'd be the kind you see in the underwear aisle of La Senza stores in regional shopping centres, a.k.a someone you back slowly away from.

5.) Britain will eventually stand up to America in a political situation, but only if the Prime Minister fancies the tea lady and wants to ensure that the President, who has basically been sexually harassing her at work, doesn’t get to her first.

Forget going via human resources on this one and saying you'll back her at a tribunal ‘til the end. A much better pulling tactic is to basically declare war in front of the world's media, because, like, pretty girls.

6.) If somebody is harbouring a secret and totally unrequited love for you, they will most likely make your wedding to their best mate super-nice and then quietly confess on word cards at Christmas before moving on with their lives.

Rather than, y’know, turn up drunkenly sobbing in front of your flat one day and punching your boyfriend. Because, as we all know, unrequited love is known to induce states of sweetness and restraint at all times.

7.) Sometimes Christmas is better spent with your best mate, getting drunk and watching porn, than it is in pursuit of an actual shag.

Now, this one actually may well have traction (there's nothing that screams 'Christmas Eve' more than a supervised wank.) When ex-heroin addict and failed popstar Billy Mack, played with a heavy dose of self-satire by Bill Nighy, regains fame but chooses to jettison Elton John's party in order to spend Christmas with his old, fat archetypal loser of a manager, our cold feminist hearts became one degree warmer, even if the decision was entirely inconsistent with the character's previous lascivious behaviour, and his manager seemed like kind of a drag. 

8.) Puppy love takes precedence over being orphaned.

Recently lost your mum to a tragic terminal illness? Dad off the scene? Perhaps you need someone to tell you that mum really loved you and that that love will always shine in the sky for her. Someone like a grief counsel-OHMYGOD LOOK AT THAT FIT GIRL. In another instance of those pesky, sexy Americans coming over the pond and grabbing the attention of unsuspecting Brits, tweenage Joanna gives ten-year-old Sam his first romantic feelings. He then defies airport security to kiss her goodbye with the help of Rowan Atkinson, somehow without being mistaken for a terrorist with a bomb in his underpants and Tasered: it’s a Christmas miracle!

9.) Some people need you more than others.

 

In a heartbreaking scene to rival the Emma Thompson cry, Sarah, who has been in love with her colleague Karl (those abs! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD THOSE ABS!) for years, abandons the chance to pursue a relationship with him in order to look after her disabled brother. Their final scene shows Sarah and her brother celebrating Christmas together in the institution where he lives, laughing and winding a scarf around each other’s necks. A bittersweet ending for a character who loves more than she is loved and who, sadly, will probably end up alone as a result. 

10.) ‘Love actually is all around us’.

The central message of the film and the reason behind its title, you might feel that it’s a little idealistic at a time of year when all your so-called loved ones get together to drunkenly express their hatred for one another over an ill-advised box of £3 wine. Nevertheless, Hugh Grant says it, and he says it over a montage of people greeting each other happily at the airport, some of whom were in the movie (the members of the public has presumably signed consent forms beforehand) Who on earth could argue with that? The answer to which is of course: anyone with basic debating skills who's ever expressed a pissed-up authentic emotion in front of their families at Christmas and paid the price for it. So everyone, basically.

All images: Universal Pictures

Ten years on from Love Actually, we're still grappling with what we learned. Image: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

HBO
Show Hide image

How Girls made an entire episode out of a single conversation about sexual assault

“American Bitch” is a claustrophobic and clammy exploration of horrible rape debates.

Recently, I was at a party in London that a friend had brought me to. I knew nobody else there, and was happily chatting complete nonsense with a total stranger. Somehow the conversation meandered to a problematic male celebrity accused of domestic violence.

I made an offhand comment about how I couldn’t support him any more. The man I was talking to objected. Should we believe everything we hear? In under five minutes, our conversation had reached a point where he said authoritatively, “Are you really going to confidently throw around statistics like ‘over one in 20 women are raped’? Listen, I know the legal definition of rape.”

The machinery in my brain gave a familiar, dull clunk. Oh, I’m in one of those conversations. One of those conversations where a man tells a woman about what counts as rape and what doesn’t.

It takes a few minutes to realise that the latest episode of Girls, “American Bitch”, is one of those conversations. It opens with Hannah approaching a lovely white pillared apartment block, politely telling the doorman “I’m here to see Chuck Palmer.” She reapplies her lipstick in the elevator. Is she interviewing someone for a magazine? Picking someone up for a date?

Chuck meets Hannah at the door, asks her to take her shoes off, line them up next to the others, without touching his suede boots, and mentions that the “special slippers” are “just for” him. In case we were in any doubt, he says “Yes, I’m that asshole.” We see endless copies of books with his name on the cover, and certificates branding them New York Times Best Sellers on the walls, a Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction, even a photo of him with Toni Morrison. This is a very famous writer.

When Chuck admits it was “good” that Hannah showed up, she replies, “I’m just surprised you found the article that I wrote. You must have an ass-deep Google alert on yourself, this was like a niche feminist website, it’s not the front page of the Times.”

“It’s just I’m hypervigilant these days,” he says. “Look, I’m not trying to get an apology out of you.”

“Ok, good.”

There’s a very specific edge to their conversation – we’re in familiar territory. “I’m obligated to use my voice to talk about things that are meaningful to me,” Hannah goes on. “And I read something about you that troubled me, that troubled me greatly – namely, that you’re using your power and your influence to involve yourself sexually with college students on your book tour, and whether all those sexual encounters were consensual or not –”

“Ok, hold up, because that’s where this line is pretty fucking messy, when words like consensual are thrown around.”

Oh, here we are. One of those conversations.

The scene carries on like this long enough for us to realise that this is probably a bottle episode - with limited characters and sets to keep costs down - like Season Two’s “One Man’s Trash”, featuring Patrick Wilson. That was another episode focusing solely on Hannah hanging out in the big luxurious apartment of a richer, older man. But this one is more of an ethical dialogue about the problems of accountability verses privacy. For the full half hour, Hannah and Chuck debate. Chuck claims his own kind of victimhood. His personal life has been invaded, a kind of groupthink has ended with the presumption of his guilt, and now, he can’t sleep, having nightmares about his daughter discovering the allegations online. “You remember what happened at Salem,” he says gravely. “I’m the witch!” (A few moments later, he compares himself to “some fire and brimstone preacher”, seemingly not noticing the irony.) Meanwhile, Hannah stands up for the girls who claim Chuck assaulted them, adding her own experience as a victim of sexual assault to the discussion to try and help him to understand.

Of course, this isn’t simply an ethical problem explored in dialogue. The texture of their debate is as telling as the basic argument itself. Chuck repeatedly interrupts Hannah, when she’s saying things like “women who have historically been pushed to the side and silenced an–”. He asks sarcastic, aggressive questions like, Did I put a gun to her head? Did I offer her a job?” and, even, “How does one give a non-consensual blowjob?”

At the same time, he also tries to charm Hannah, singling her out as special. “Listen, you’re clearly very bright, I could tell that from the first sentence you wrote,” he says casually, a minute or two into their first conversation. “Why would a smart woman like you write a very long and considered piece of writing on what is ultimately hearsay?” he says soon after. “Cause you’re smart, you write well, you write sharply,” he insists, when she asks why he invited her over instead of a different journalist.

And it works. Chuck is just self-deprecating enough that we see flashes of humanity in him. He asks Hannah questions about where she grew up, giggles with her, and talks about her dreams to be a writer. “Maybe one day you’ll be famous,” he says. “And a lot of people will know some stuff about you – some stuff. I mean, they’ll think they’ll know everything, but they won’t. Like what happened to me. You thought you knew everything, but you didn’t.”

Hannah shakes her head like a schoolgirl in trouble. “No, I didn’t,” she says.

At this point, I felt a squirming in my stomach. Viewers have always been quick to blur the line between fiction and reality when watching Girls, and we know that Lena Dunham has plenty in common with both Hannah and Chuck: yes, she’s a feminist writer who has spoken out about sexual violence, but she’s a famous writer who has faced a degree of public condemnation – and was even accused of sexually assaulting her sibling. “We just wanted to look at it from all sides,” Dunham told Vulture of the episode. Was Girls really telling the story of the poor, misunderstood, sexually aggressive male writer?

The next scene takes place in Chuck’s bedroom, where Hannah is awestruck over a signed copy of Philip Roth’s When She Was Good – Roth’s only novel with a female protagonist, Lucy, who repeatedly attempts to connect with and reform the disappointing men around her. “I know I’m not supposed to like him because he’s a misogynist and he demeans women,” Hannah says, in a comment that could easily refer to Chuck as much as Roth, “but I can’t help it.”

Chuck eventually asks Hannah to lie down on the bed with him – whilst encouraging her to “keep your clothes on to delineate any boundaries that feel right to you” – and when she does so, he unzips his fly, rolls towards Hannah, and flops his dick onto her thigh. Hannah surprises even herself when she touches it, panics, and tries to leave.

It’s a typical Girls moment - ridiculous, blunt, and sudden but still funny, and it reveals Chuck once and for all for the predator he is, whilst simultaneously portraying him as pathetic.

“People don’t talk about this shit for fun,” Hannah tells Chuck, and she’s right, these arguments are not fun. As Dunham told Vulture: “We’re having so many conversations about rape culture and assault and they’re really, really important conversations, but a lot of women walk around with a lot of shame about things that don’t look like rape in the traditional way.” Although there’s a grim humour in the familiarity of these scenes, this bottle episode feels claustrophobic and clammy, with shots of Hannah rubbing her neck or looking away awkwardly. It’s sweaty and stressful.

“Anyway, last year, I’m at this, whatever, warehouse party in Bushwick, and this dude comes up to me,” Hannah says earlier in the episode. The two are old schoolmates, and they talk about a former teacher, who Hannah calls out as a molester. “And you know what this kid said? He looks at me in the middle of this fucking party, like he’s a judge, and says, ‘That’s a very serious accusation, Hannah.’ And he walks away.” Yup. Sounds like one of those conversations.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.