Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote of kitsch as the salient feature of Eastern bloc totalitarianism. It was not just the experience of dire poverty and shabbiness – here’s a typical East German joke: “A man comes into an East Berlin department store, looks around in desperation and asks the saleswoman: ‘Have you no shoes?’ Her reply: ‘No shoes is on the first floor. This floor is no bed linen.’ – but Soviet-style idealism that made life truly unbearable, “the world of Communist ideal made real,” a world of “grinning idiots,” as Kundera put it
In Britain, we face a different kind of tyranny and though we live in a materially far more prosperous time, our politics is suffering from a kind of totalitarian cringe. Its most bitter fruit is the hold Richard Curtis’s Love Actually has on the popular imagination. Love Actually has become a major feature of this election campaign – actor Hugh Grant, who played the Prime Minister in Love Actually, himself has campaigned for both Labour and the Lib Dems, urging voters to choose the candidate most likely to unseat the Tories. This week Boris Johnson created his own version of the “Say it’s carol singers” scene with the title “Brexit, actually.”
I remember settling down with some friends to watch a film just before Christmas time. The near-unanimous choice? Love Actually. About half way through, I came up with what I thought was a stunningly brilliant series of reflections. First off, in a film notionally about love, and billed as an exploration of the Romantic vision of love, “love actually is all around”, why are all the main characters engaged in a series of nasty Ovid-style love-games?
But more importantly, isn’t this film just a very aggressive satire of New Labour cultural optimism? All the characters are extremely well-off and work in effectively interchangeable environments – chic office spaces. Indeed, none of them seem to do much work at all. Colin Firth’s novelist fails to write his novel. Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister just dances around Downing Street. The non-affluent characters are walking stereotypes – the mute Portuguese help, the nice but supposedly dim PA, portrayed as a working class simpleton.
Even more weirdly, all of the main characters converge at their children’s school play. Clearly, they all live in the same catchment area, in their enormous houses and send their children to the same New Labour nice state school. Love Actually represents the final stage of Richard Curtis’s obsession with a certain type of class sensibility (white, middle class, floppy hair). In Notting Hill, Hugh Grant ran a bookshop; now he runs the country. Indeed, each of his male characters stand for a different sphere of life over which the Curtis vision proudly holds sway – high culture, pop music, politics and the media.
For Milan Kundera, it was the grand abstractions of the Communist project, “the brotherhood of man on earth,” the “Grand March” towards a supposedly freer, better world that effectively closed off the possibility of imaginative escape from the social realities around the Eastern bloc’s inhabitants.
The illusions of our time may be less oppressive, but they are no less painful and annoying for all that. In Curtis’s world, there is no real poverty, or material need. Curtis’s ordinary people are treated with sneers and snickering. Indeed, this is too a world deprived of its consolations, love of others and faith (churches are only for weddings and for reading out Auden poems). It implies that all we really need to heal the Brexit divide, to repair the dilapidated public realm and to give us hope for the 2020s, is for Hugh Grant to turn up at the door, leaflet in hand, all gentle smiles and simpering glances and good humour.
Actually, no thanks