On movie sex and movie love...

The Holiday

YEAR: 2006
DIRECTOR: Nancy Meyers
KEY ACTORS: Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jack Black, Eli Wallach

✔️So the cast are definitely fuckable. I’m not a Jude Law fan as such but, wow, this is extraordinary levels of hotness and Kate Winslet is never better than playing an English Rose
❌ But this film didn’t inspire fantasies. In fact, completely the reverse. I actively didn’t want either of their lives!
❌ This may just be my opinion, but I also don’t think this film is rewatchable. I hate Love Actually and I watch it all the time. I have only seen this twice and that’s too many times!
✔️It does pass the Bechdel test, although I am pretty annoyed that this is another pass because of conversations with children. Adult women can talk too!!
✔️ But I do think it is sex positive. It’s full of romantic cliches but the sexual ones are pretty well handled.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

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So, more than 6 months into this sex and relationships movie blogging project, I should probably admit that I don’t like romantic comedies. I never have. I love love love sexual tension in movies and hints at connection, but I much prefer these moments in movies of other genres – The Thomas Crown Affair is a heist thriller, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Dirty Dancing are primarily coming of age movies – and really struggle with the ‘comedy’ in a romcom.

The contrived circumstances needed to create both romance and comedy can be so excruciating that they make me want to leave the room in awkward embarrassment, and too often I think they’re just stupid. Sadly, they are often quite poorly made – if you’ll allow me a brief rant at the patriarchy so early in this post, ‘women’s things’ are rarely treated with the same level of respect as Good Man Stuff and so don’t get the same budgets or backing by the studios, and this shows too often in romcoms.

But I dislike romcoms for a more personal reason – I find them oddly depressing considering they are supposed to be comedies and they tend to make me feel inadequate. I realise now that I have always hated them because they exposed how unhappy I truly was about being single. I couldn’t exactly pretend that my life contained everything I wanted when I had spent 2 hours hoping that the romcom characters got what I pretended I didn’t need. Either my life was rubbish or the romcom was, and so it was an easy choice to rubbish the crappy movie!

The Holiday is the pinnacle of this battle between the movie’s intention and my personal response. It is the ultimate Christmas feel-good easy watching romantic comedy, but it made me cry like few movies have ever made me cry. I sobbed and I got angry and I left the cinema in such a blazing fury that I didn’t know what to do with myself. Watching this movie made me hate my life and hate myself and hate everything about the Christmas romcom industry.

Quite an overreaction!

But, watching it again now from a less vulnerable and volatile place in my life, I still don’t like it. It’s less offensive to me but I still can’t see the happiness and joy that makes people return to this movie over and over again and I definitely couldn’t describe it as the ‘ultimate self-care flick.’

The Holiday tells the story of two women, Iris (Winslet) and Amanda (Diaz) who are both having a romantic crisis at Christmas. Iris is still in love with an old flame, Jasper, who has just announced his engagement to another woman and Amanda has discovered that her boyfriend is cheating on her. Both need a change and make a last minute decision to house swap with a stranger online. Amanda moves to Iris’s picturesque English country cottage, where she meets and falls in love with Iris’s brother Graham (Law), and Iris moves into Amanda’s huge LA mansion, where she meets an elderly neighbour Albert (Wallach) and has a fling with Miles (Black), a friend of Amanda’s ex.

This movie really touched a nerve with me because I recognised myself in both Iris and Amanda’s bad moments, and it was actively painful to watch them in a movie that didn’t resolve any of their problems (or so my angry 21 year old self thought!). I had had so little sex by 2006 that I felt Amanda’s fear that she was bad in bed in my bones but my main difficulty arose because in 2006 I was fully in love with a friend who didn’t love me back. I was Iris. And watching Iris bending over backwards for Jasper, doing his work and buying him presents and being generally portrayed as kind of pathetic in her yearning for him, I saw quite clearly how ridiculous I was because that’s how I acted around my crush. I realise now that doing acts of service is one of my love languages so cooking for him and helping with his coursework felt like acts of love; it felt like I was showing him how I felt even if I couldn’t say it.

An image from the Holiday of Kate Winslet as Iris

But just as I was Iris, my crush was Jasper. He wasn’t a twat like Jasper, purposefully keeping me on the edge of hope, but I recognised him in the way that Jasper only thought of Iris when it was in his interest to do so. He might tell her how important and special she was in private but, in public, he would casually break her heart by choosing other women; women who really were important and special, who he really did love and did want to fuck. My crush was a 19 year old boy and completely clueless – he wasn’t trying to hurt me when he made out with other women when we all went out as a group; he just didn’t think of me. He simply didn’t love me like I loved him. I was a friend who liked cooking and had a better grasp of grammar than him who was happy to help, and that was all. But, oh my gosh, it hurt to be shown my reality so plainly.

I mean, how could I not sob when I heard this? How could I not feel seen and not become overwhelmed with hopelessness?

‘I understand feeling as small and as insignificant as humanly possible. And how it can actually ache in places you didn’t know you had inside you. And it doesn’t matter how many new haircuts you get, or gyms you join, or how many glasses of chardonnay you drink with your girlfriends… you still go to bed every night going over every detail and wonder what you did wrong or how you could have misunderstood. And how in the hell for that brief moment you could think that you were that happy. And sometimes you can even convince yourself that he’ll see the light and show up at your door.’

It didn’t help me that Iris kicked Jasper out and realised that she deserved better, because she didn’t really get it. The movie has one of the most annoyingly unconvincing endings ever as I’d argue that none of the characters get a real happy ever after and surely that is the only reason to see a rom com. We need the happy ending! Iris may have finally got over Jasper but it’s suggested that she’s now found love with Miles, a man who lives across the world, is definitely rebounding from his cheating girlfriend, and has only taken her on two dates. Really? I love Jack Black but he isn’t right for this role – cruelly described by the Guardian as ‘chubby, yet hubby material,’ his Tenacious D-style gurning is really annoying and only serves to highlight how much more chemistry there is between Iris and Albert, her elderly neighbour!

An image from the Holiday of Winslet and Black

Equally Amanda has finally found an emotional connection with someone but she has fully fallen in love with a man who couldn’t be more logistically incompatible – she lives in LA as she works in the movie industry; he has two children living in England. Neither are exactly easy to relocate. Are they going to commute across the Atlantic? Are either of them so in love after GENUINELY TWO WEEKS that they’re going to uproot their whole lives to be together?

It was so unbelievable that I didn’t get any happy feelings from the ending at all; it filled me with despair instead. Was that the happy ending that I had to look forward to? A really great holiday romance and then I’d either get to go back to my old life and my old problems, or I’d be in a long distance relationship based on a very short and new connection? Of course, some LDRs do work out but I don’t think anyone would claim that they were easy! The whole thing seemed just as hopeless as before.

I fear that my emotional turmoil when I first saw The Holiday tainted the messages that I took away from it in 2006 as, just like a bad first impression, I couldn’t see the positive charms in the film because I was drowning in my own negative reaction, but I do have to concede that there is at least one piece of good advice in this movie.

Because Albert’s advice to Iris was hard message to take and one that I didn’t appreciate for many years, but it really is truly excellent advice: ‘This is not a hard one to figure out. Iris, in the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you are behaving like the best friend.

An image of Wallach

THIS is the kind of advice that we need from romcoms! I had been the ‘best friend’ for years – knowingly on the sidelines, not trying to make my life my own because I was trying to find a place for myself in other people’s – but changing my perspective to prioritise me definitely helped me realise what I wanted and what I needed to be happy. I also love this advice as doesn’t start from a place of personal criticism in the way that similar realisations in romcoms tend to do. We didn’t need to take off our glasses to make us more conventionally attractive to men and it didn’t suggest that it is our actions that have made us intrinsically unlovable – we simply (ha!) need to prioritise ourselves and have confidence in our own value. We are and should be the leading ladies in our own story!

Writing for Refinery 29 in 2018, Anne Cohen suggested that this might be why The Holiday has had a recent ‘renaissance’ – dating has become so much more toxic in the last few years that we need Iris’s realisation of her worth to remind us that we too have value: ‘It’s incredibly freeing to finally know, in one flash of crystal clear sanity, that you are better than whatever has been keeping you down…Iris’ tirade is a cathartic repudiation of all the toxic men who made 2018 a roiling miasma of despair. We’re done with you!’

My ongoing problem with The Holiday, however, is that none of these fine messages really stick because there is too much schmaltz and perfection in the movie to see myself in it’s positive messages. Maybe it is a leftover effect of my devastating initial overreaction but I can’t see The Holiday as ‘a warm cashmere throw that you can snuggle in while the world turns white outside.’ It’s not real; it’s a dream. A chocolate box painting or a Christmas card.

Part of this is just how Nancy Meyers makes movies. She is famous for the interior design in her movies, particularly creating fabulous and enviably homely kitchens, and this is a well known part of her process when making films, telling Elle Decor that she sees ‘a house as a lead character in a movie.’ This focus on the home has been used as an easy stick with which to criticise her film making – ‘people are too quick to write her off because of, well, sexism dressed up as intellect’ – and while I agree that it is sexist to criticise Meyers for focussing so much on decor, I think it is fair to say that this level of detail constitutes her personal directing style. She uses the Home, with a capital H, to enhance our appreciation of her characters, but it backfires in The Holiday for me. I can’t believe in her characters as real people because I don’t believe in their presented reality.

This is particularly true for Iris. I don’t know enough about LA to comment on whether Amanda’s mansion is how houses look and whether it is affordable for someone who makes movie trailers, but I do know England and I do know Surrey, and Iris’s house and village are how an American would present an English village but are not like any commuter towns that I know!

An image from the Holiday of Diaz outside Iris’s beautiful cottage

It’s ridiculous enough that Iris has her own desk at the Telegraph as a wedding correspondent but if a 40 minute train ride out of London could get you into that rural wonderland, no journalist could afford it! (Although if I’m misremembering how affluent we all were before the 2008 financial crash, please don’t tell me!) The Guardian review described it as a ‘glutinous film…coated in a kind of buttery stuff, a soft golden glow of ersatz romance’ and suggested that Iris lived in ‘a part of Surrey usually accessible only from the back of a wardrobe.’ It’s Narnia. It’s not real! Just as I don’t believe that it has ever snowed in England like it appeared on the film, with a thick enough dusting decorating the landscape to look beautiful but not enough to cause transport chaos, I don’t believe Iris’s life so I can’t believe her recovery and redemption.

An image of Diaz standing in the snowy English countryside

Maybe it’s a British thing. Maybe it’s a white middle class small c conservative country girl thing. Because I am Iris, although I work in medicine not journalism, and it took me out of the film to see such an unrealistic presentation of my life.

Wow, over 2000 words on my complicated feelings about Iris and almost nothing yet on Amanda, Cameron Diaz’s character…

I really only have one thing to say about her – why are we still presenting professional, successful women as unloveable and unemotional? Because that is essentially who Amanda is. She’s unable to cry, she is ‘bad in bed’ and she lies about her success as it puts men off. Of course, Iris has a safe female career – journalism. Wedding journalism even! But Amanda has a real job in a real industry so, obviously, this needs to be her big character flaw. Oh how I love a stereotype… It’s not enough that Graham isn’t bothered by her career – everything about him already positions him as a mythical golden boy so his feminism isn’t really noticed. Why can’t we have positive representations of professional women that don’t either involve sacrifice or the Perfect And Understanding man?

An image from the Holiday of Diaz and Law

I think my criticisms of The Holiday focus in on the fact that I don’t really get the point of it. It doesn’t tell a new story, it doesn’t have any real plot twists or surprises, and personally, it doesn’t give me any of those good feelings that might make me happy to ignore it’s flaws. As Glamour summarised in their review, ‘what’s the theme of The Holiday? Good things happening to good people? What’s its message? Have a merry Christmas?’

Looking back in 2019 eyes also reveals that it is completely saturated in privilege and has a ‘crippling lack of diversity, merging of cultures or different classes.’ It is almost entirely white, except for people in service roles, and all of the characters are incredibly wealthy – they are ‘affluent women with very little to lose.’ Who can really afford to fly across the Atlantic with less than 24 hours notice? Even though I am exactly the target audience for this film, I can’t relate to it.

But I do wish I could enjoy this film. It has so many great ingredients but, even though it doesn’t make me cry anymore, it still doesn’t make me feel anything good…

Next week – An Affair To Remember

All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

1 Comment

  1. Starcross

    Urgh, one of my least favourite films. I actually felt embarrassed watching this. “his Tenacious D-style gurning is really annoying” – it really, really, REALLY is.

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