The films of Argentinian director Gaspar Noé (Irréversible, I Stand Alone, Enter the Void) are obsessed with the intertwining of “authenticity” and “artifice” and thus: every scene of pain or desire is purposefully made overlong to leave the impression that they leave no stone unturned. Noé is a filmmaker who pushes audiences uncomfortably deeper into moments that are usually reduced to a suggestion or glimpse if they are not censored altogether. Some call him a “pornographer,” others consider him a “provocateur” – but whatever merits his work may or may not have, he is at the very least a challenging artist if only for the discussions his films provoke. Perhaps the most famous example from his work is the 12-minute-long rape scene in the middle of his dizzying revenge flick Irréversible; which used such scene to deal with the entire nature of consequence by contextualizing all the problems of the male-id “lizard-brain” thinking. Love is the title of Noé’s interesting-yet-difficult to see/unsee film, which opens with a man and a woman explicitly performing an unsimulated sex act to careening violin music (the film earns its X-rating immediately). Of course Love will undoubtedly be referred to as “that 2015 unsimulated sex movie,” a type of film that has been equally derided as taboo and praised as transgressive in the history of cinema. The modern “art house sex” movie has been a staple of festivals and young film fans and recent examples include the digitally inserted (i.e. computer animated) porn star genitals in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac; Vincent Gallo receiving oral sex from Chloë Sevigny in Brown Bunny; and the body-double orgy in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus. However, in the case of Love, does dabbling in taboo inherently make for worthwhile art or are we merely content to guise up pornographic indulgence with “artful” posturing? Where does art end and porn begin or are they intertwined beyond distinction? Likewise, which is more authentic: “lust” or “love”?
Love is by far Noé’s most hardcore film visually, but it’s built around a pretty standard narrative, and surprisingly has a conservative approach to communicating it. The film tells the story of an artist couple in their early twenties, Murphy (Karl Glusman) and Electra (Aomi Muyock), who have sex and banter while living in Paris. The crux of the film deals with Murphy and the emotional, physical and psychologically fall-out after Electra dumped him for getting another woman, Omi (Klara Kristin), pregnant. Now living with Omi and his son for a couple of years, he is filled with equal parts resentment and nostalgia. The movie is essentially a portrait of how feelings and situations involving any and all combinations of lust, love, anger, resentment, regret, passion, jealousy, nostalgia, sadness and the solipsistic headspace can potentially fester into toxicity…and how they pass from body to body through physical expressions.
In contrast to the trauma-inducing mindset of many of Noé’s past projects, Love is easy to take in, granted you are able to stomach the lengthy and explicitly detailed sex scenes. This is an otherwise gorgeous film with a romantic naturalism you can shockingly lose yourself in. It is downright hypnotic at times. The film is marketed as “a love story told from a sexual point of view.” The dynamics between sexual partners are examined for nuance beyond the oft-explored “domination” and “submission” situation. For instance, a couple lies tangled up in bed, darkness swoops all around, enveloping the characters and obscuring their surroundings like a spotlight focused on just the two of them, “Show me how tender you can be” is said by one and it’s as much a provocation to Noé, the notoriously gruesome auteur, as much as it is to the character it is said to.
Unlike other Noé films, there are few “gimmicks” beyond the unsimulated sex (the film was shot on 3-D but is more widely being screened in 2-D so I couldn’t tell you how it looks). However, while the film does at times brilliantly evoke the fantasy (at the very least) of having been in lust, love and loss, the kind that is only made potent by a catastrophic demise, there’s an ugly sense of empty pretense about the whole endeavor. The film may be saturated with the sensory excesses of young adult love and yet…the film doesn’t seem to be populated by fully formed people so much as puppets in Noé’s “straw man” thesis. The performances of the actors compound matters by coming off as stilted and distant when they aren’t outright “bad.” However, you can’t deny the film as a visceral endeavor. A delicate, sentimental song will overlay the pounding music of a club scene; the dialogue often appears selectively saccharine; the lights never go off, though so much of the film takes place at night. All these effectively hint at a story that is unfolding at intimate levels but Noé’s worshipful distance from love can be as alienating as it is alluring.
For all its ambition and insight this is still another trip into the director’s predilection of needless self-explaining universes of archetypes more interested in naval (or in this case genital)- gazing philosophy. Noé’s Love can’t help but feel a little self-satisfied for the filmmaker. You can tell by the way he implants himself and his authorial point of view throughout, which has the strange effect of intensifying and breaking through the intimacy between authenticity and artifice. I say it intensifies because it effectively leaves no questions about Noé’s intentions; however it almost breaks the movie because it’s really distracting. These ranges from self-insertions, like that Electra’s ex boyfriend is named Noé, or that Murphy names his love child Gaspar. Murphy’s an aspiring film director in Paris, and so forth. However Noé takes this to another level when he has a character actually regurgitate the thesis of the movie ad nauseam. It all comes off more as a defensible gesture than an organic revelatory moment.
Love does not quite work as philosophy or as a deep look at human relationship through physical intimacy (think of the movie as a musical or martial arts film but with hardcore sex acts standing in for dance and fight scenes). Part of which is that we have not fully articulated on or fully accept sex as cinematic language/storytelling yet. So that leaves Love as something else entirely. The movie uses geometrically striking style with a presentational and largely static camera that suggests movement in the background of a tapestry. The three kinds of shots in Love (frontal, profile, and overhead) creates the impression of a moment being coldly sliced by a lab technician preparing a microscope slide as the shots are spaced with flickers of black screen in lieu of traditional continuity cuts. Add in Murphy’s subconscious narration juxtaposed with his most explicit flashbacks and fantasies intermingled with the harsh reality (including what he actually says aloud and does), Love may actually be the most interesting attempt of any filmmaker in recent years at conveying the experience of sensory perception, memory and fantasy in simultaneous real time.
You probably shouldn’t see Love. And I am not just talking about the hardcore sex scenes. The film has a lot to explore: sex, sexuality, love, lust, memory, feelings; and certainly explores them in an interesting and unconventional manner yet the movie has actually very little to say. Those looking at art for “answers” will no doubt be disappointed by the lack of profundity despite the clear insight on display. This is a film that exists on that murky fog (not a line) where pornography and art meet and while it is interesting for anyone to attempt to navigate such a hazy realm it might yield unfortunately impotent results. However, what Noé has crafted instead is a rather unique visceral film experience above all. What Love lacks in a substantive experience is made up for in style – Noé has created cinema that is a truly sensory experience. Far more interesting to experience in the moment and to feel than to actually examine and ponder, that is Love.