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If you cut out all the sex scenes in Gaspar Noe‘s Love, what’s left is a wistful, some might say sappy, story about heartbreak — made with impressive cinematic elan but somewhat shallow emotional depth despite all its tragic posturing. Like Noe’s previous effort, Irreversible, it tells its story out of chronological order, but if a hypothetical editor were to shuffle the scenes around, you could easily get a straight-up boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-pairs-up-with-a-second-girl-he-doesn’t much-love-and-feels-sad-about-losing-the-first-girl narrative arc. (The characters are played, respectively, by Karl Glusman, Aomi Muyock and Klara Kristin.)
Indeed, by Noe’s standards, especially compared to his last Enter the Void, Love is pretty innocuous, hardly shocking at all. This may seem like a surprising thing to say about a movie that features a tight close-up of a penis ejaculating into 3-D space at its audience.
Granted, shock is a very relative notion. Obviously, there must be millions of people out there who have no idea who Noe is, who are entirely unaware of his reputation as Cannes’ current enfant terrible in residence now that Lars Von Trier is presumably still banned from the festival for making jokes about sympathizing with Hitler. That vast swath of Noe-virgins out there might be scandalized that a film could contain quite so many artfully designed shots of people copulating — usually in pairs, but also threesomes, foursomes and more-somes, comprising roughly fifty per cent of the running time — and yet still be considered anything other than out-and-out pornography. But for those who’ve been keeping up with the shocking violence, the brutal rapes, the vagina-cam shots of penetration and space-age metaphysics of Noe’s work, Love springs the biggest surprise of all, putting almost none of that sort of stuff on display. OK, yeah, he clearly couldn’t resist yet another cervix-eye view of penetration, but the only physical violence is a drunken brawl over in a few seconds, and then it’s back to more sex and soul-searching. It’s almost like Noe is trying to grow up, to move on and find a way to make films that won’t revolt or disturb his viewers. Some of his hardcore fans will be direly disappointed.
Is it any good? Again, that depends on your perspective, and what you want it to do for you. As a downbeat love story about romantic loss, it’s ineffective because it’s hard to get invested in main man Murphy’s (Glusman) despair over losing Electra (Muyock) when he’s such a callow jerk. A cocky, in every sense, young American in Paris who wants to make films, maybe even someday “sentimental sex films” where emotion and feeling are expressed through the lovemaking (get it? Did you see what Noe did there?), he is, to use a British expression, all mouth and no trousers, someone who gabs a lot about the big things he’s going to do and yet achieves precious little. The only time he holds a camera is, you guessed it, to shoot footage of Electra lounging around naked in bed. What’s even more annoying is the way Murphy instigates a visit to sex club with Electra (at the suggestion of a friendly local cop, played by sales agent Wild Bunch’s head honcho Vincent Maraval) and then combusts with jealousy when she, well, has sex there with other people. Wasn’t that the whole point of the trip?
Glusman displays some capacity to act, especially in the last scenes where he has a theatrical crying jag in the shower, but in terms of the stated aim of showing sentiment during sex, the results are less convincing. He looks just as preoccupied and faintly ridiculous as anyone else in a hardcore scene while making his ‘O’ face. The same goes for the female characters, who are further handicapped by a script that doesn’t let them be much more than ciphers. There’s much talk of how troubled Murphy’s great love Electra is, how she has a drug habit and demons ominous enough to worry her mother when she disappears for a few months, but she displays hardly any signs of an interior life.
Ultimately, Electra is little more than another example of one of French cinema’s favorite tropes, the Crazy Beautiful Sex Bomb Who Can’t Be Tamed (see also: Beatrice Dalle‘s character in Betty Blue, for the most iconic deployment of this archetype). The more absent and unattainable she is, the more Murphy pines for her. That forces poor Omi (Kristin) — a neighbor who has a three-way with Murphy and Electra in the film’s most erotic sex scene and then gets pregnant, thus “entrapping” Murphy in boring domesticity — into a lousy role as the interloper who ruined Murphy and Electra’s supposedly perfect love. What self-serving drivel.
On the other, if the metrics by which you want to measure Love are its brute sexiness and technical panache, then the film is indeed rather extraordinary. Thanks to Noe’s regular collaborator Benoit Debie (who also shot such recent visually bravura films as Spring Breakers and Lost River), Love contains some of the prettiest shagging scenes in cinematic history. That long ménage a trois scene, for instance, is an orgy of sculpted light that flatters every perfect pore of the actors’ extraordinarily comely bodies, captured from high overhead angles that are held for long takes and keep most of the bodies in frame, like dance sequences in classic musicals.
Elsewhere, Noe, Benoit and Denis Bedlow, Noe’s co-editor, set up carefully calibrated match cuts to create a kind of flicker effect as Murphy (who when we first meet him in the film’s present is a smidge pudgy and mustachioed), casts his mind back to his clean-shaven past to remember his days with Electra. If, as mentioned previously, Love feels tonally very different from Noe’s earlier work, there is still an abundance of tiny, stylistic flourishes that evoke to his back catalog: there’s the bitter, voiced-over thoughts that echo the protagonist of Seul Contre Tous; the time shuffling that’s of a piece with Irreversible (also at one point, Murphy and Electra screw in a tunnel that looks very like the one Monica Bellucci was raped in in that film); a flashing bulb that conjures the 2001-style trip sequence in Enter the Void, and much else beside. Clearly, Noe is at great pains to assert that this is a very personal project, which would account for the wink-wink way components of his name are distributed to other characters, like Murphy and Omi’s toddler son Gaspar (a very cute kid with a piercingly sad cry) and one of Electra’s ex-lovers who’s called Noe (Jean Couteau).
It’s hard to call if this work will make any more or less of a stir commercially. Noe certainly has a fan base, especially in France, but for more casual viewers, a lot of his earlier works’ appeal lay in their do-you-dare-to-see-it shock value, and there’s not that much of that this time. Even the idea of doing a love story where the sex illustrates the emotion has been tried before with Michael Winterbottom‘s 9 Songs and others. Strictly judged by the yardstick of sex films, it’s actually pretty conventional in its configurations of bodies and positions, and nothing one couldn’t see with a couple of clicks on the Internet.
Production companies: A Les Cinemas de la Zone, Rectangle Productions, Wild Bunch, RT Features production in association with Scope Pictures
Cast: Karl Glusman, Aomi Muyock, Klara Kristin, Juan Saavedra, Jean Couteau, Vincent Maraval
Director/screenwriter: Gaspar Noe
Producer: Gaspar Noe, Edouard Weil, Vincent Maraval, Brahim Chioua, Rodrigo Teixeira, Genevieve Lemal
Director of photography: Benoit Debie
Editor: Gaspar Noe, Denis Bedlow
Production designer: Samantha Benne
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 135 minutes