I come home from seeing the stage musical of Little Women to find this debate going on in Andrew Sullivan's blog over the movie Love Actually: here and here, best in that order. (Sullivan is erratic about dropping pieces behind a paywall, so I hope you can see them.)
Some people think the movie is the most romantic ever, a real tribute to the forms and varieties of love; others find it repulsive and even nasty. I only saw the movie once, when it was new: I enjoyed it, but mostly because I'm a sucker for intricate, interweaving storylines. But though I didn't loathe it, I certainly didn't find it an affecting depiction of love in any sense.*
And, after reading those posts and thinking about them, I realized: People who love Little Women speak of it with the same kind of cherishing passion that the defenders of Love Actually have for that movie. But while there are certainly people who find Little Women merely dull or boring, so far as I know it doesn't generate polarizing detestation as Love Actually does.
As for me, I can't claim to be a true devotee of Little Women. Despite the number of times I've seen its movies, I'd half forgotten the story and couldn't even have named all the sisters offhand. But Little Women does for me exactly what Love Actually tries but fails to do. The movies and stage show of Little Women really do make me cry, whereas I had no feeling for the characters of Love Actually at all. Little Women really is all about love, in all its forms and varieties. Romantic love plays a major part, yes, but the real center of the story is in sisterly love and parental love. There's also generous helpings of true friendship, neighborly love, charitable love, love of one's work, even love of country (in the men going off to war and the women's home ec projects undertaken to support the war effort, all done from a sense of deep moral obligation). That's quite a lot, and it's all stirred together.
Whereas Love Actually - well, it says it's about all kinds of love, and it does cover familial love and friendship, though not very affectingly - but the vast majority of it is romantic love. And it seems to spend most of its time defining romantic love as "sexual lust for someone you hardly know." And it shows people in the grip of this passion betraying romantic commitments they've already made - if that bond means so little to you, what will this new one mean? - and betraying friendship and family as well, undercutting any point that the other threads of the story are trying to make. One of the movie's defenders admires it for showing that people in love will do stupid things. But that's not all that they do. And the stories, though they're intertwined in the narration, don't really intersect each other, and they don't hang together. The Prime Minister finds his political courage because he's in lust for the tea girl? What? There's nothing organic about this; it doesn't flow or follow. Everything in Little Women is completely organic, even in the abbreviated movies. And that's why the one affects me and the other doesn't.
*There is one place where Love Actually is affecting. One writer in Sullivan's blog says "I defy anyone not to be moved [by] the last minute or so, where the filmmakers simply show real people meeting loved ones at the airport." I agree. And you know why that's moving? Because it is real people really showing the warmth of love. It shows up the rest of the movie as the artificial construct that it is, that even fine actors can't overcome. I felt the same way about Schindler's List. I spent most of that movie seething at the cold, crafty (in the worst sense), artificial manipulativeness of Spielberg's storytelling. Then comes the closing scene where the real survivors pass by and place stones on the real Schindler's grave. That was moving.