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Love Actually

The Ideological Anxiety of Loneliness


Near the beginning of Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love, the first person narrator says ‘if one ever wanted proof of Darwin’s contention that the many expressions of emotion in humans are universal, genetically inscribed, then a few minutes by the arrivals gate in Heathrow’s Terminal Four should suffice. I saw the same joy, the same uncontrollable smile, in the faces of a Nigerian Earth Mama, a thin-lipped Scottish granny and a pale correct Japanese businessman as they wheeled their trolleys in and recognised a figure in the expectant crowd.’ McEwan however goes on to describe the variations in the universal. Numerous British films during the Blairite years have also been keen on the emotionally universal – but less interested in defining differences out of this emotional universality. They’ve been much more interested in affirming emotional homogenisation. Indeed there is a scene similar to McEwan’s at the beginning of Love Actually, where we see numerous couples, families etc. embracing at Heathrow airport with a voice-over informing us that no matter the problems of the world, what drives us is love.

Richard Curtis’ Love Actually then pushes its thesis through a criss-crossing narrative that demands what we all want and need is love, and yet it’s a love that is so programmatically insistent that one may well wonder whether what we need is something else altogether – the individuating process that can make us feel much more, and first and foremost, a sense of aloneness.  There is a bruising assumption in films including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary, the film adaptation of Enduring Love, Love Actually, About a Boy and Jack and Sarah that love really is all you need. But we might wonder whether this love functions as intrinsically positive, or as a reactive state – as a reaction to loneliness. Where Mike Leigh’s Naked and to a less intriguing but nevertheless quietly warm degree Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland interrogate the issue of London and loneliness, these other London-based films feel like works whose underlying anxiety towards aloneness generate narratives of coupledom at any price. Whether this is jokily present in Bridget Jones’ Diary, neurotically so in About a Boy, or more abstractly presented in Enduring Love, we sense a narrative that wants to suggest to the viewer that love, or more specifically, relationships and coupledom, are all we require.

Let us here take each of the three films just mentioned in turn. Opening on Bridget Jones wailing to ‘All By Yourself’ as she sits in front of the TV guzzling chocolate, the film’s premise resides in Bridget’s failure to couple up. In classic narrative terms she’s reminiscent of a Jane Austen heroine (the man of her conventional dreams happens to be called Darcy): a woman looking for a man but at the same time unable to find herself. In Austen, so often we have a woman’s search for a man coinciding with a more accidental sense of self-discovery and, sure enough, here Bridget falls for ne’er do well Hugh Grant before realizing that her real self resides in a relationship with Colin Firth’s Darcy. But where for Austen central to this move towards finding the right man, is a move towards a self-actualization through that man, in Bridget Jones’s Diary the emphasis is on the right man over the self-realization: the audience’s well-being resides chiefly in Bridget getting a reliable guy over the arc towards self-definition. If for many, Austen’s books are so much more than love stories, it resides in the process of self-discovery her heroines undergo. Sure at the books’ conclusions there are happy endings, but Austen’s gone to great lengths to explore a heroine’s tortuous developing consciousness. In Pride and Prejudice the narrative purpose resides in Elizabeth Bennet’s blindness to what matters in life and so her infatuation with the character of Wickham is wonderful because he helps her escape from self-definition: she’s swept away by his charms, and it’s for a character like Darcy to ground her once again in the real world. What Bennett has to master are the correct instincts, the most useful way to perceive the world, and thus the key moment in the book comes with Elizabeth’s harshly self-appraising letter of apology to Darcy. What matters here is not that she must have a man, but that she must have an awareness of herself, and that perhaps marrying a man like Darcy, whatever his own hubristic flaws, will move her towards this healthy, self-appraisal. However, even if she weren’t to marry him, would a sense of self-awareness nevertheless now be central to her being?

So if we can say Bridget wants a man at any price, and that consequently the film isn’t about her move towards self-recognition (which would demand a degree of aloneness) but towards marital status, then what can we say of About a Boy? Ostensibly our central character, played by Hugh Grant, doesn’t want commitment at all. Living a life of leisure through a stroke of good fortune – his father wrote a hit song and Grant lives off the royalties – Grant is like an existentialist in reverse. He doesn’t exist to fill his life full of meaning, but to fill it full of meaninglessness. As he says at one stage: he sections his life off into half hour slots as a way of getting through his day. There is no hint of crisis in this, though it resembles a few of Ingmar Bergman’s comments in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern. In the Grant film it is part of a retreat from the meaning of life; in the Bergman book it’s the problem of regenerating meaning in a life on the point of collapse. ‘I went on the attack against the demons with a method that had worked well in previous crises. I divided the day and the night into definite units of time, each of which was filled with activities organized beforehand…’ Grant is presented not as a character in crisis, but merely as a man alone, a man awaiting his duties, his obligations and a sense of purpose. If for Bergman we are talking of a crisis that sits deeply within him and can only be resolved through careful self-comprehension, and through techniques of well-being, in About a Boy, the crisis goes no deeper than laziness and a move towards activity. What Grant really needs, the audience might think, is another person to give his life some meaning. In this sense it’s the Kantian line: make your own happiness be dependent on the happiness of another. Where Bergman is closer to a stoic philosophy of mastering oneself before all else, About a Boy wants to make clear that any self-mastery on Grant’ part is narcissism, evident in the scene where he goes for a haircut and discusses its intricacies in some detail. But it is only when a young boy accidentally comes into his life that the film suggests meaningfulness can be generated.

There is the sense here that a man without a family is somehow depleted, inadequate, lazy – and finally, of course, lost. We might wonder whether this is really what the film of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love suggests also. Certain changes from book to film help us here. Where McEwan’s first person character describes himself as ‘a large, clumsy, balding fellow…’, in the film, played by Daniel Craig, he’s a lean, muscled figure who’s edgy narcissism is contrasted with Samantha Morton’s cosy physique and softening presence.  In the first half of the film he takes for granted that Morton will eventually be his wife, if and when he chooses to take the plunge, and there is even one scene in the film (completely absent from the book), where Craig feels hurt after a ruinous night with friends where he was about to propose to Morton in front of them. The scene indicates the degree to which Morton is his, even if its ostensible purpose is to show that Craig is losing a little of his mind in the wake of a man who stalks him.

Now in McEwan’s novel, as in the film, the story opens on a ballooning accident where various men in the Vale of Oxford try to land a balloon which has a little boy in it. In turn the men let go of the rope as the balloon takes to the sky, and only one man holds firm, eventually, however, falling to his death as the balloon floats high into the air. Finally, the boy lands safely, but a man has died, and for the central character this lead to much self-questioning, but it also leads to the increasing presence in his life of one of the other men who were there that day: in the film, Rhys Ifan’s unemployed, religious obsessive. It is Ifans who believes that their moment of despair, praying over the dead man’s body, proves they were made for each other. But for the film’s purposes it’s as though Ifans functions as a personification of the anxiety of loneliness we’ve talked about thus far, but taken to psychotic extremes. So what the film loosely sets out is on the one hand an attractive, well-preserved mid-to-late thirty something man who doesn’t seem to want to commit, and on the other a severely mixed up erotomaniac who is so lonely, isolated and lost in his own world, that he fixates on a clearly heterosexual, socially well-adjusted college lecturer to alleviate whatever chaos is inside him. Is this as much a projection as an issue of infatuation – with Craig’s character the social flipside of Ifan’s outsider?

The film is, like many British films of the Blairite years, proposing the significance of relationships, of marriage, of having children, but chooses to couch its anxieties towards their absence in the psycho-thriller; not necessarily because the psycho killer is crazy, but just as readily because he is the antithesis of the values the films propose as healthy, useful ways of living. This isn’t to argue that they’re not healthy ways to live, but we might wonder why the values are so different from, say, the Angry Young Man films that came out of Britain at the end of the fifties and in the early sixties, a genre that included A Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and A Kind of Loving. In these films the anxiety was not of loneliness, but closer to Fernando Pessoa’s wonderfully blooded-minded comment in The Book of Disquiet: ‘As adults our life is reduced to giving alms to others and receiving them in return. We squander ourselves in orgies of coexistence’. One of the biggest problems with the films we’re focusing upon here is the degree to which they insist these orgies of co-existence are social givens. Whether the character possesses the minor form of loneliness present in Bridget Jones’s Diary, or the major form evident in Rhys Ifans’ display in Enduring Love, the films insist on aloneness as loneliness, isolation, narcissism – as pejorative states.

It is this pejorative aloneness that is also present in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting HillJack and Sarah and Love, Actually. In these comedies of affluence money might not be able to buy you love, but it goes some way to helping you have a lifestyle that impresses the other half. Yes, in Notting Hill, it could be argued that Julia Roberts’ movie star goes downwardly mobile when she starts dating travel book-shop owner Hugh Grant, but we should be wary of being so sure. After all, Grant lives in an upmarket part of London, and any down-ward mobility would seem to be a case of Roberts searching for a simpler life than the life she leads in Hollywood. What all the aforementioned films suggest is a general level of comfort attached to the fear of aloneness. This comes through most clearly in the scene in Notting Hill when Roberts joins Grant and some of his friends for Grant’s sister’s birthday. As everyone gathers round, they discuss notions of failure, and central to this is careerist failure and marital failure. Yet the film makes clear that careerist failure does not entail a lower standard of living, merely a sense of inadequacy, and it can be this very sense of inadequacy, without material discomfort, that can make another so appealing. Thus none of the films really deal with states that combine the emotional and the social intrinsically, but instead extrinsically – through the elements they need to create a triumphal togetherness. Even Ifans’ poverty in the Enduring Love adaptation is extrinsic: extrinsic in the way it shows how inadequately positioned he is to have a relationship. If in the book Ifans comes into money and this allows him to pursue his stalking activities, even to hire private detectives and hit men if necessary, in the adaptation he lives in a run-down, poorly lit flat as opposed to the salubrious house he lives in in the novel. There is a sense that the pejorative aloneness, attached to poverty, leaves the person as a non-being, and yet that isn’t strictly true. For there is a Pygmalion, fairy tale aspect to a number of the films, present in wealthy Jack taking up with his au pair Sarah and, in Love, Actually, where Hugh Grant’s prime minister falls for his young, pretty tea lady. But their relative poverty is something they will clearly lose as they move up the social ladder.

So what all the films suggest is the need to find a social position that is comfortable and at the same time enter into a relationship that is as comfortable as the financial situation. All the films arrive at democratic notions of money and love but do so both falsely and in an ideologically forceful manner. They’re dishonest in that they don’t accept social differences as inevitably part of a complex social fabric (in Enduring Love Ifans’ poverty is less vividly realised than metonymically useful – it is an index of his emotional despair); they imply everybody could be comfortably off if people would only accept the benefits present in the healthy and comfortable society so presented.  But they are also vaguely fascistic if we take fascism to mean an ideological dictatorship, a perspective that refuses to allow other perspectives to be present. Thus there is no sense in the films of aloneness being other than pejorative, and this could be why Roger Michell’s Enduring Love gratuitously grafts onto the story the couple played by Bill Nighy and Susan Lynch to show what Craig is refusing to accept: the bliss of married life with children. In one scene where Craig is at his most emotionally isolated, he walks around in the rain before finding shelter at Nighy and Lynch’s place. So keen is the film to show domesticity at work, and Craig’s inadequacy in relation to it, Michell has Craig, soaking wet, being given the baby to hold. Narratively we’re meant to see a man who holds the bably reluctantly as someone who can’t accept responsibility, but we might be left wondering about the responsibility of the parents who put the baby into the arms of a man drenched from the rain. What about the baby maybe catching pneumonia, we might wonder?

Thus we can see how in a scene like the one just quoted, the false and the fascistic come together. The filmmaker, so sure he’s worked into the film a singular enough meaning, a chiefly metonymic justification for love and togetherness, can’t see that certain scenes have too much residual implausibility. It’s a version of suspending disbelief, but what we are asked to do is suspend disbelief in relation to verisimilitudinous narrative – this is a soaking wet man with a baby in his arms – for the ideological: for the idea that this man has a problem with commitment and he ought to grow up. Now it is under such an ideological single-mindedness that aloneness could have little place, as the films move towards narrative notions of togetherness at any price, even at the price of basic common sense. It is almost as if reasoning is too singular a reaction and the films hope the viewer will be so wrapped up in the film’s ideological development they fail to question the film on a more fundamental level of specifics. It’s as though the films do not want to create singular subjectivities that think, but a subjective collective that does not. It doesn’t need to think because there is no problem raised; merely an assumption arrived at. If a film like Enduring Love generates a subjectivity it does so against itself: in us noticing the absurdity of a soaking wet man being left to hold the baby. What the films refuse to do is generate an active subjectivity where the images purposely and purposefully force upon us problems we need to address.

Thus these films are full not of questions but instead begged questions. So for example in Love Actually, we have Hugh Grant’s British Prime Minister claiming during a press conference whilst the president’s in the UK that he will not follow the American President’s line. Here he offers a rousing speech about British sovereignty which seems to have been offered more because of the president’s half pass at the tea girl Grant fancies, than because of political differences. And then we’re left begging the question narratively: what has this done to Anglo-American politics, and would this mean that Grant’s Prime Minister has decided to focus on Europe than on the other side of the Atlantic? That the motivation finally, undeniably lies in the half pass at the tea-lady can best be explained by the fact that the narrative through-line doesn’t rest in following the political thread, but simply the emotional one: as Grant eventually accepts he’s fallen in love with the young woman.  There is the begged question in Four Weddings and a Funeral, also, where Grant’s character marches a girl up the marital aisle only to march her back down again as he jilts her at the altar. This has little to do with plausible narrative, but again to do with generating an audience assumption that plays havoc with any hint of a reality principle. We might ask ourselves is Grant really likely to go so far with a woman he has shown no hint of love for up until this point, and is the scene only there to up the tension before we see him inevitably ending up with Andie McDowell’s character?

If we have just given some examples of the begged question, of the unlikely superimposed upon by ideological assumption, perhaps it is only fair to say what we would mean by a motivated question. It is seen most frequently in what we will loosely call the High Art film, in the work of Antonioni, in Bertolucci, in Wenders, in Godard, where the camera calls the narrative into question not however by begging questions within the narrative, but by alluding to more than the narrative centre. Hence Antonioni’s The Eclipse ends on a series of shots in Rome where the two leading characters we expect to see in the shot are both absent. They were supposed to meet at a crossroads but it seems neither has turned up, and Antonioni shows their absence through presencing the almost empty city streets from dawn till dusk. Here we have the absence of anthropocentric narrative focus leading to the motivated question. Where are they? Why have they not turned up for the meeting, and what is the filmmaker suggesting by filming their absence? We can see it again in Godard’s Le Mepris in a scene, for example, where the script-writing central character Paul appears to allow his wife to spend a period of time alone with his sleazy producer. He insists she gets in the two seater car with the man, and that he’ll get a taxi and meet them back at the producer’s house. When Paul eventually turns up, he makes various excuses but we’re never sure whether Paul is telling the truth because Godard hasn’t followed Paul’s actions closely enough during his period of absence to know. In Godard’s elliptical illustration of Paul’s journey from the town to the producer’s villa, key moments have been removed, thus begging the question, certainly, but begging the motivated question: the question that asks us quite deliberately to wonder about the missing elements.

This is what is not happening in film like Love Actually, Enduring Love and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Some will say why even attempt to draw comparisons with great modernist cinematic works, but maybe it helps us to pinpoint what is woefully problematic about these British films.  The comparison (or more accurately the contrast) brings to mind Godard’s comment that television unites and it should be cinema’s job to divide. The modernist filmmaker sets out to divide in a motivational manner that demands we make sense of information that has been so elliptically presented that we have no choice but to offer subjectivity of our own, consequently falling in line with Godard’s claim that cinema should divide.  These British films however want a television aesthetic that unites. But they cannot offer this sense of unification without begging bigger questions that they anxiously hope we won’t ask, because it would generate a subjectivity in the viewer when the film is seeking a homogenization instead. Does Four Weddings and a Funeral really want us to muse over Hugh Grant’s horrible behaviour as he jilts a woman he clearly never much cared for in the first place, or does Enduring Love want us to ask why the central character’s girlfriend refuses to take seriously the threat of a stalker? The answer in each instance would seem to be no, because if we asked too many questions the desired affective response would be lost. In the former instance we would be thinking more of Grant’s awfulness than about his good fortune in getting the woman of his dreams. In the latter instance the character’s sense of impending despair as we follow his increasing sense of frustration would be diluted if we also were asking a host of questions about the girlfrend’s motives. The motivations that should be concerning us in Enduring Love are those of the stalker and the stalked. The girlfriend’s purpose is not herself to have a complex psychology – that would upset the film’s move towards a value system.

This is a value system that can be loosely described as psychologically dichotomous for the purposes of a homogenized ethos. One the one hand we have the stalker who is socially isolated, and on the other, the good-looking lecturer with a regular and loving girlfriend. Why can’t he see, the film all but suggests, that he has the good life. Whilst the film makes clear it is perfectly understandable that Craig would let go of the balloon’s rope for his own self-preservation, shouldn’t he be more committed to the rather less risky venture of marrying his long-term girlfriend? But if the girlfriend is presented with a complex subjectivity, if she’s seen to have all sorts of personal quirks and attributes (no matter that in the film she’s a sculptress, her subjectivity it is made clear doesn’t include too much soul-searching or psychological intrigue) then she might not be seen as the gift horse Craig looks in the mouth.

Some years ago in a book on American cinema, A Cinema of Loneliness, Robert Phillip Kolker used the term ‘the politics of recuperation’ chiefly to describe Steven Spielberg’s films.  Contrasting key works from the seventies, including Taxi Driver, Night Moves, and The Conversation with Spielberg’s movies, Kolker says he ‘noted the shudder that went through the dominant ideology during the sixties and seventies, beginning with the assassination of Kennedy and ending with the liberation of Vietnam in the late seventies. For a society unused to internal failures and external losses, unable and unwilling to analyze events historically, politically, economically, rationally, the result was a mixture of anger, guilt, and frustrated aggressiveness. In contrast, in Spielberg’s world, the films “constitute a factory of ideological production, the great imaginary of the eighties full of images the culture wanted to see, images and narratives that expressed the culture.” Now though there are many key differences between the US in the seventies and eighties and Britain in the eighties and nineties there is nevertheless a sense that late nineties/early 21st century British cinema is recuperative in the way Spielberg’s movies of the eighties happened to be. Where British films in the mid-to-late eighties were so divisive that the historian Norman Stone famously wrote an article in The Sunday Times chastising British filmmakers for making anti-nationalist cinema (films like Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, The Last of England and Empire State), now they have become so inclusive they seem to be searching out the recuperative ideological imaginary familiar from Spielberg’s oeuvre.

This might not be the end of the world as we know it, but it might be the death of a certain kind of resistant thinking in film. For we should remember the last time Britain never had it so good, in McMillan’s words, we also had the beginnings of Kitchen Sink wondering whether things were really that great: a whole movement of films we’ve mentioned above that came out in the late fifties through to just before the mid-sixties. But Cool Britannia and Blairite Britain haven’t really produced a movement of antipathy to counter the cool notions. Filmmakers who most obviously don’t fit into Blairite notions of British film tend to be veterans like Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, and while there has also been the odd film from the younger generation (like Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth and Carine Adler’s Under the Skin) these are isolated works. They are the exceptions it seems proving the rule; the rule that British cinema during the Blair years was about an overly optimistic presentation rather than enquiring pessimism. If British cinema can be defined in terms of its zeitgeist effects, then the London films of affluence, alongside the bitter-sweet triumphal working class comedy (The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, Brassed Off, The Match etc.), are the films of the era, no matter if some of the latter were set in the eighties.

This isn’t to attack films that are doing well necessarily, but it is to question why such successes are working despite the questions they beg. We might not demand of all British films that they ask motivated questions – that remains the province of a rarefied cinema – but we might ask for films that at least don’t beg so many questions, and to ask why if they’re begging questions what might be behind the eschewal. John Archer of ‘Scottish Screen’ reckoned, in Cineaste, the man involved in a number of the films mentioned, Richard Curtis, ‘is almost a studio himself, with the successful Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and his contribution to Bridget Jones’ Diary having the feel of a trilogy. But in the best possible way these films are from an English never-never land caught in a studio within the M25 and having more in common with films from the Golden Age of Hollywood.’ But what Archer doesn’t address is the fact these films lack the tight, internal logic of a tradition in Hollywood filmmaking where the rejection of realism required an equational brilliance. It is beside the point to ask whether the films are true to life; they merely have to be true to the narrative predicate they set up: there is nothing to be gained by saying Singin’ in the Rain lacks realism, but there is something essential in asking why Grant seems all but ready to marry a woman he clearly doesn’t love at the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Even a good Hollywood film, a film set in never-never land, possesses a narrative logic that will allow us to suspend disbelief.

If it is true that Hollywood is a deeply ideological cinema, that it contains all sorts of givens to do with material progress, the frontier spirit, and often their combination, The American Dream, nevertheless the films work very hard to sublimate these elements in a generic form that allows them to work on their own logical terms. Perhaps these British films want to ape the Golden Age of Hollywood, as Archer suggests, but they seem to be doing so at a price. They  want to turn England itself (or more specifically London) into a never-never land of hope and possibility, but because they draw too much on life and lack the narrative tightness of the Golden Age, the films belie their ideological roots, rather than managing to mask them. If we could really believe that the London shown is a never-never land, we might be able to let go of certain notions. One would be the idea that London, according to a survey in the Guardian (21.01.05) supplement called ‘London: The World in One City’, with its byline, “a special celebration of the most cosmopolitan place on earth,” is an unavoidably multi-national culture. Now this wouldn’t be such a problem if the films were creating exclusive worlds, but certainly Notting Hill, Love Actually and Bridget Jones’ Diary possess an inclusive perspective that suggests that we all fall under the same rubric: that it isn’t about celebrating difference, but a false sense of sameness. This is more or less white and middle-class. At least McEwan’s novel looks at the assumption that we all share certain characteristics, but many of the films here want to ignore the problem of difference because of their obsessively romantically inclined through-lines.

We could perhaps believe (and thus suspend disbelief) more readily if the films did one of two things: created a world so utterly artificial that they wouldn’t have us asking bigger questions at all (like what would really happen if Britain were to stand up to the U.S.), or so genuinely inclusive that a filmmaker could find the simultaneity in the multi-cultural element running through London culture, and, to borrow an anthropological term from Levi-Strauss, thus its mytheme, its cultural first-principle. If the filmmakers could earn their optimism either through generic tightness, or through searching for some underlying system that could draw a multi-national culture together, this might result in the avoidance of the begged question. Certainly there are numerous British films, even London films, that neither move in the generic direction nor some first principle, but still retain something interesting, films like Wonderland, The Low Down, Beautiful Thing. For example, they all suggest a range of cultural experiences in London, but they don’t try to work from these experiences the homogenizing optimism we’ve been touching upon. In the overly optimistic London film, or even, as in Enduring Love’s, case, an over-determined belief in love,  we sense a partial view being presented as a totalizing one. As Trainspotting novelist Irvine Welsh remarked in Cineaste, British audiences were sick of “a bland Four Weddings and a Funeral sort of place. They wanted to see a wee bit more about the cultures within that society that tend to be ignored.” All the critic can do is show why that might be the case, and to indicate how ineptly these ideological marshmallows push through their narrow perspective, whilst suggesting the broader ones readily available.


©Tony McKibbin