...Have you read 'Lincoln in the Bardo'?
Somehow, I’ve seen The Holiday starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz about a dozen times. It’s never been an active choice; I don’t think I went to see it in theaters. I’ve never sat down and said, “Hey, do you know what movie I want to see right now? The Holiday.”
No, it’s always been a happy choice by default — a movie on a plane, a late-night selection on Hulu, something picked to watch in the background while I bake something Christmas-y and want to get into the spirit, something I saw playing on TBS and decided to watch until I found something better which I never do.
While certainly not the strongest in Nancy Meyers’ oeuvre, I think it’s fair to say The Holiday is a charming and entirely inoffensive film. Even after a dozen viewings, it’s never gotten less enjoyable because its charms don’t rely on being fresh: Kate Winslet’s hygge cottage in Surrey and Diaz’s massive mansion in Los Angeles are just as enviable upon fiftieth viewing; Arthur Abbott is still a wholesome stand-in for a fantasy version of Old Hollywood; and no matter how many times I’ve checked Wikipedia, Hans Zimmer’s surprisingly excellent score will always make me go, “Oh, whoa, Hans Zimmer did this score.” Like any good romantic comedy, we get a Kathryn Hahn appearance (plus a bonus John Krasinski), and even though I sometimes find Cameron Diaz and the over-acting way she talks to herself a bit cringe-y, the entire movie is unserious enough that I’m content to swallow her scenes in order to get back to Winslet.
But, after seeing any movie that many times, even the most willing suspension of disbelief begins to crumble. Dark, nagging questions begin emerging through the film’s perfect white linen façade like weeds. When I present this fan theory, I want to be entirely clear: I understand that this in no way was the film Nancy Meyers thought she was making. Consider this entire piece squarely in the camp of New Criticism as espoused by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley who argued that authorial intent is “neither available nor desirable” when it comes to evaluating a work of literature. This is a completely textual interpretation, more or less entirely counter to the unserious fun rom-com spirit with which The Holiday is presented, but let’s go for it anyway.
After she returns home from her office holiday party, where her former lover announced his engagement to another woman, Kate Winslet’s Iris, hopeless and despondent, turns the gas of her stove on and blows out the flame. She breathes deeply. After a few minutes, she comes to her senses (“What am I doing?!”) and is thrust back into the real world with a ding from her computer alerting her to the fact that someone across the world wants to switch homes with her for a vacation.
Coincidentally, across the Atlantic, Diaz’s character, Amanda, is also dealing with an unfaithful love interest: her boyfriend has been cheating on her with his secretary. While she’s chasing him out of her house, she pauses with chest pains. “I can’t breathe,” she gasps.
I fully understand what a cliché it is to present a “what if the main character was dead and the whole movie was all in the head!?” fan theory. Really, I do. Those fan theories piss me off. Not every movie can be “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I get it. I do.
But what if these two women, thousands of miles and several time zones away, shuffled off their mortal coils at the same time, (Winslet’s suicide attempt was in the evening, Diaz’s terrible breakup ostensibly in the morning: considering one is in London and one is in California, these could be simultaneous) and their souls became entangled, presumably due to their complementing themes?
In the spirit of this year’s Man Booker Prize, let’s not even say they’re dead — let’s say they’re in something resembling the Bardo (after all, like Iris, Rodger Bevins III also got second thoughts after a suicide attempt and he ended up in the Bardo). Both Iris and Amanda have unfinished emotional business to resolve, and so the fates have ordained that they get a bit of time, a holiday, if you will, to sort themselves out before they’re able to move on.
For Iris, her emotional catharsis comes from getting over the jerky writer she’s in love with. Her L.A. love interest, Jack Black’s Miles, feels like almost an artificially perfect foil to the uptight, humorless Jasper — he’s fun, spontaneous, shares his work with her without asking for feedback and, most importantly, when he’s given the choice between a brunette that he was in a relationship with and Iris, he chooses Iris.
Similarly, Jude Law’s character, Graham, is everything Amanda didn’t get from her cheating Los Angeles boyfriend. He’s so wholesome he has a cow in his backyard. He’s a book editor when Amanda had just been bemoaning the fact she wishes she could read more. He’s entirely devoted to his daughters (her ex’s relationship with young women was sleeping with his secretary). And he’s so committed to Amanda he’s willing to tell her he loves her and say he wants to stay with her even though they live an ocean apart. He breaks through her emotional wall.
Iris gets her gumption moment rejecting Jasper. She’s self-actualized, the same way Amanda is self-actualized the moment she cries for the first time since her parents got divorced.
And what of Arthur Abbott (Eli Wallach), the only other non-love interest main character? He’s an elderly man, presumably not far from death. Is it such a stretch to imagine that he finally gets to reunite with his lost love after an evening where he a.) is recognized for his career b.) arrives on the arm of a woman with gumption, just like one of the women he wrote, and c.) is able to walk up the stairs alone, and to thunderous applause?
Three characters were tangent to death two weeks before Christmas. Three characters have stories that intertwine and become actualized in ways that fully align with their mortal baggage.
It’s possible to imagine that Nancy Meyers’ world is real, that these women live in a place of multi-million dollar homes and cozy interiors and endlessly devoted love interests. Maybe that world, of linen pants and first class flights and cozy pubs and white duvets, is entirely real. But maybe, just maybe, it isn’t.