Every holiday season there are a couple of Christmas movies I re-watch with my daughters. One of the girls’ favourites is Love, Actually (I personally prefer Elf, myself.) I know there has been a lot written about this film, and much of it highly and justifiably critical. From the extremely degrading plotline of the high school boy porn fantasy of Colin going to America to find easy American girls, to the ethically irresponsible prime minister making spur of the moment state decisions based on his hard-on for an employee, the movie is severely flawed, not to mention confusing. Is that love, actually? I am not sure…
But there is one plotline that makes the movie worth watching and not only because the principal actors are superb in their own right. It is the most realistic, the most mundane and the most devastating story of the collection: the marriage portrayed by Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. Very little happens, but in true Mrs. Dalloway style, everything does.
SPOILER ALERT (but I’m not too worried- if you haven’t seen this movie yet it is because you have made the conscious choice to avoid it and therefore will not care that I spoil the storyline).
Emma Thompson plays Karen, a stay-at-home mother (or, in modern Ann-Marie Slaughter parlance, she is the lead parent). Alan Rickman (may he rest in peace) plays her husband Harry, who owns his own business (what the business is actually is never described) and is a self-described grump.
We see Karen at home, making silly costumes for her children’s nativity play, comforting her friend (Liam Neeson) who has just lost his wife, running frantic trying to get the holiday baking done and the Christmas shopping done. There is a scene where the two of them meet at the department store to Christmas shop. She is the one who is doing all the thinking about and purchasing of gifts. She leaves her husband alone to amuse himself for a few minutes while she runs around buying the “boring gifts for the in-laws”.
Harry, on the other hand, is barely present at home and is more attune to the pining of his employee for another employee than he is paying attention to his wife. But worst, his new, sexy assistant has the hots for him and is making some not-so subtle advances. She makes it known to him that she would like a necklace from him. When his wife is off doing all the Xmas drudgery he spends his time alone buying a beautiful necklace for his assistant. When they get home, Karen is hanging his coat and feels a box in the pocket. She peaks and is tickled to see it is a necklace. He actually bought her something other than a scarf! He actually wanted to do something nice and romantic for her! She is moved and feels special and recognised for the first time in years. She can’t wait to open it!
Christmas Eve comes and they are all allowed to open one gift before heading to the kids’ play. Karen chooses the box shaped present from her husband. But when she opens it, it is a CD of Joni Mitchell, which her husband tells her it is for her “continuing emotional education.” Not the gold necklace, which he has given to sexy, young hot thing that wants to jump his bones.
Ugh. She has to excuse herself to go sob privately for a minute before she puts on the smile again and goes to applaud her little lobsters in the nativity play (not sure what that’s all about…)
It gets me every time. That moment of disappointment when she thinks she is going to be recognized, when the man she loves has actually done something surprising and special for her completely of his own free will. And then the crushing realization that that special thing was for someone else…
That’s all. Nothing really happens. Her husband doesn’t have an affair with the assistant. There is no epic fight or big dramatic leave-takings. He only buys a necklace for a woman other than his wife. But in that one gesture, the cracks in their life, the depth to which he has stopped seeing his wife and to which he takes her for granted is revealed. On her side, the amount of neglect she has to swallow, the sacrifices she has made to her own ambitions and sense of self to be the one to stay home, the stigma around being the caregiver she must sweep under the carpet in order to be able to feel like her life has meaning, all rises to the surface. He has made a mockery of her life by not honouring her role.
This storyline portrays one of the daily, small cruelties we inflict on our loved ones- the violence of taking them for granted, of not appreciating what they bring to our life. It is so tempting. You see the person every day. You are besieged by all the little annoying habits of the other, of all the daily drudgeries of raising a family and trying to make a living. It is so easy to get lost in the maze of the quotidian, of the routine, where you do the same thing over and over again and wake up to do it again. You can start to feel like something is missing. Is this it? Is this all there is to life?
And bam! Because the drudgery has become too much, because this feeling of emptiness and imminent mortality has overwhelmed you, because you wonder when it will be your turn to have fun, to not have any responsibility, you give in to temptation, give the necklace to someone else and don’t even think of your partner. And this is how we break our worlds. By not paying attention. By blaming others for own unhappiness and sense of dissatisfaction.
I have been trying to write about the mid-life crisis for a while now and this seems like a good, seasonal entry point into this discussion. Apparently I need to say it out loud to make myself do it, so here goes. The next few posts will be devoted to this necessary, brutal stage of life that can either be devastating or expansive, depending on how you choose to go through it.
But before that, a word of advice for the holidays:
Stop. Take pause. Clear out the white noise of the holiday traffic, those full parking lots full of stressed out frazzled shoppers and fluorescent-lit stores with gaudy consumer products and the endless tirade of cheerful, monotonous ear-hurting Christmas music. Take a deep breath, preferably outside where there are trees and a view. Get some perspective. Let all of the stressful crap of Christmas fall away and think about your family. And for the love of all that is good in the world, give the damn necklace to your partner. Trust me. They deserve it.