The reluctant analyst and the reluctant wife annually, more or less, engage in a holiday viewing tradition. When we can find time away from the kids (this actually is a movie that, were it not for some necessary and in some ways silly nudity would be wonderful for our teens), we escape for a couple of hours into the romantic fantasy world, set during the Christmas season, of Love Actually. This star studded British comedy (Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney, and a bunch of really good character actors) seems like it should be an ensemble piece, but it is more a collage of individual love stories woven together by the affiliations that the players have with each other. The stories range from the absurdly carnal - the British loser who goes to a random bar in Wisconsin and, because of his cute British accent, beds not one but four women; to the touchingly sweet - the naive couple that are playing stand-ins in an X-rated film, so get to know each other while wearing no clothes and yet manage to engage in an innocent love affair, and the writer who falls in love with the woman who is cleaning his home and she with him even though neither can speak a word of the other's language. In between are stories of love on the rocks and how couples survive, romantic love shelved by fraternal devotion, the love of the rock star for his fat manager (and of the masses for an aging rocker who is cheeky), a story of first love guided by paternal love, the love of a hopelessly klutzy prime minister for one of his staff, and forbidden love left unconsummated because of respectful friendship. Left on the cutting room floor, but available in the out takes, are more love stories - stories of maternal love and committed love in the face of death. It is a banquet - a feast of love. More love than one has the right to imagine - and it is sandwiched between the opening and closing sequences of anonymous lovers, parents and children, and friends greeting each other at Heathrow airport. As Hugh Grant intones over the opening montage, "Love actually is, all around."
This cornucopia of love, necessarily surfacy in any individual story, builds, one after the other, to a climax of not one but three (or is it four? or five?) powerfully told moments of romantic consummation - the moment when the lovers acknowledge their love for each other - the moment when they pledge their troth - the moment when what has been private, hidden, hoped for, feared, but deeply deeply desired becomes public, shared, acknowledged - and a feeling of unbridled joy, of deep and powerful satisfaction, of happiness that moves us to tears occurs. And in that moment - or these moments - layered one on top of the other, the director/author, Michael Coulter, is addressing the question that my esteemed British analyst colleague Peter Fonagy has asked the analytic community to consider - it is a question one of his patients posed to him - why is sex alone so much less satisfying than sex with another? Now this question could also be phrased, "Why is the love of another so much more satisfying than self love," but I think that the sex part is essential both to Fonagy and to Coulter - there is something about sex itself that is perhaps the most powerful cohesive agent known to man. And why is that?
For Freud, the answer was easy. Sex is the engine. It is the primary drive that powers everything else. In fact, all of the loves, not just the romantic but the fraternal, the maternal, and the star worship depicted in the film are, for Freud, expressions of the sublimated sexual drive. But Freud, too, struggled with the question of what love for and from the other has to offer that self love doesn't. For Freud, the first sexual act was the pleasurable feeling associated with breast feeding - or its equivalent - and thumb sucking became the first masturbatory activity. Sometimes accompanied by rhythmic ear tugging, this pleasurable activity was, to him, clearly a self controlled position where the infant could provide a feeling state analogous to the deep satisfaction that the warmth of maternal care - and milk - produces, without the bother of having to rely on someone else to provide it.
So, without getting caught in some of the logical loops that derailed Sigmund, we can ask, "What is the milk of love - what is the nourishment of being pleasured and known by and knowing and pleasuring another that leads to the pleasure that is so much more satisfying than providing pleasure for ourselves?"
The answer that this film provides, at least to this viewer, comes in the form of satisfaction that the ending provides. To me, the end of this movie is more satisfying than the usual cotton candy of a romantic comedy ending. Aristotle proposed that the satisfaction of tragedy is the catharsis that comes from identifying with the protagonist. Catharsis is a BIG experience - it is an emotional cleansing. Romance doesn't usually provide this sort of experience. Roxanne, another favorite rom-com, is great until the last ten minutes. Once she says I do, the air goes out of the movie. In part, I think, because we don't have access to the manifold ways in which she means that - C.D. has sent her hundreds of letters and she has known him in many many ways. But we see two people, somewhat two dimensional, on the screen - excited to know each other, but incongruous. She, beautiful but ditzy, having fallen for the dumb attractive guy who used C.D.'s words, and he, smart but wearing a stupid nose. Suddenly the identification falls away and we are looking not at two loved or desired people, but at two people who will have to find a way through life together - and that seems full of problems and they seem, somehow, ordinary - no longer imbued with the tension that the anticipation of their knowing each other provided.
In Love Actually, the climax romances all share important components. Each involves a bumbling lover - the writer who has been cuckolded by his brother and who now woos a woman with what he thinks is pidgin Portuguese but is really just pigeon, the Prime Minister who feels more like his Aunt Mildred than the powerful leader of a nation, the boy who has a crush on the most popular girl in school but fears she doesn't even know his name - and in each case the beloved falls in love with the inept lover not in spite of their ineptness, but, in part, because of it. Each is inept in his own way, each is competent in his own way, and we (or perhaps I should speak for myself here - I) identify with each of them. And in the multiple identifications, the mirroring of true love may start to emerge - it is not just that the other can know and appreciate this about me - not just that they can know and appreciate that - but they can know more and more of me and, as they do that, they continue to want to be with me. Simultaneously, as I get to know this other person, more and more of them is revealed. They are glorious in ways that I didn't even know - and I already thought they were pretty glorious. The layering of the discovery process, the depths of the knowing - and sexuality is certainly one of these - that she or he can know me and want to know me, to touch me, to pleasure me - to respond with pleasure to my touch, is sublime. I feel truly awake and alive - physically, sexually, emotionally, cognitively, and in every other way, in the other's presence.
This experience, while not as cathartic as the identification with the tragic hero, is hard to portray on screen - hard to present as an analogue in part because it is so particular - he or she loves ME. Also because, a propos of this discussion, the viewer is, ultimately, alone. Watching others engage in an activity is not the same - even with the powerful identifications that occur with attractive and vulnerable movie stars. But this movie comes close - closer - to the experience of love in part because of the multiple plots, the multiple identifications that get resolved one after the other - it is like multiple orgasms of consummation - and I think that reflects the experience of falling in love - a spiral of discovering multiple overlapping connections - multiple ways of being accepted, touched, appreciated and appreciating as the single relationship unfolds between two complex individuals who reveal and discover multiple aspects of themselves, in some ways multiple selves, to bring to that single relationship. And the conclusion of the movie - with each of the couples reuniting at Heathrow airport - continues the sense of more - one analytic writer has described love as the feeling of excess - that the basic resolutions involve, and they fade into the tens and, in the final montage, hundreds of reunions between actual people at Heathrow - people who are less luminous on screen - their skin is not as clear, their eyes are not as bright - but the love that they feel for each other is real, palpable, and all the more intense for their having recently tasted the loneliness of separation and for now dipping into the joy of reunion - of connecting again with people that we know and love, and who know and love us. This bridging, this sharing, is much more profoundly joyful than being the emperor of our own well controlled, pleasurable but ultimately empty kingdom.
Love does not sustain this peak - this high - we don't live happily ever after. The other also discovers things we don't want them to know - and things we don't want to know about ourselves. We discover that they are not all we imagined them to be. In that sense, perhaps Roxanne, with its flat final ten minutes is a better reflection of part of the reality of love, but in lasting loves - in those that sustain us - we do continue to have reunions - to rediscover ourselves and the other in ways that are enchanting - in ways that give us hope and joy in living. Not a bad thing for the reluctant wife and I to rediscover in our annual rite of movie watching...
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