One of the most hotly anticipated films of Cannes this year was Gaspar Noé‘s “Love,” It’s only the fourth feature in seventeen years from the enfant terrible behind “Irreversible” and “Enter The Void,” and insofar as it’s a 3D drama revolving around unsimulated sex, the film had the potential to be his most controversial picture yet at its midnight bow on the Croisette. And yet, as with so many instances of “serious” filmmakers tackling matters below the belt, the effort proved to be less of a mind-blowing, all-night marathon, and more of an underwhelming, unsatisfying quickie behind some garbage bins.
The new film by the director (who’s no stranger to for-real on-screen fucking, having featured such in various forms in both “Enter The Void” and his short in art-porn anthology “Destricted”) is in many ways a conventional romantic Bildungsroman, as American-in-Paris Murphy (Karl Glusman) gets a phone call telling him that one-time love Electra (Aomi Muyock) is missing, and he recollects their obsessive, tempestuous, heavily sexual relationship. It’s an investigation of “sentimental sexuality,” a film intended, as the director said, to “give guys a hard-on and make girls cry.”
But by most accounts from Cannes audiences, neither outcome took place. Our Jessica Kiang’s B- review was one of the kinder verdicts (admitting she was “often entranced in that visceral, pure cinema kind of way”), but most critics were bored, angry or somewhere between (for the record, I had a terrible time with the film —this was my reaction after the screening).
Noé’s far from the first filmmaker to attempt to bring real sex into the mainstream (or least the arthouse), depicting it not as the L-shaped sheets, simultaneous-orgasm, Ken & Barbie-genitaliad activity as we normally see onscreen, but as people actually experience it. But many of those movies, including Michael Winterbottom’s “9 Songs” (the closest comparison point to “Love”), “The Brown Bunny,” “Intimacy,” “Destricted” and “Ken Park,” have had similar reactions —boredom and disappointment, and the idea that aside from their X-rated content, there’s not much there.
One could perhaps put this at the feet of critics. Sex on screen is still treated with a certain squeamishness or knee-jerk jokiness, and it was notable how the reactions at Cannes seemed to default towards gags about sticky floors rather than serious engagement with the content. And part of the reason that realistic on-screen coitus remains such a taboo is the way that the narratives about these films are dominated by the novelty of actual sex rather than how successful they are at busting taboos and revealing character through the acts depicted.
After all, sex is a hugely important part of the human experience and the driving force for the motivations in countless movies, and the idea that we can have ultra-realism in most elements of cinema but the bedroom is a curious one, and filmmakers trying to push boundaries and find a new way of expressing sexuality on screen is a laudable aim in theory. But let’s not put too much blame on the critical consensus: aside from perhaps John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus,” most films like “Love” are objectively unsuccessful as such.
Noé’s film is useful as a case study. As with all of the director’s films, “Love” features some stunning visuals, and thanks to the helmer’s regular cinematographer Benoît Debie (“Spring Breakers”), the sex scenes could be the most beautifully-lit in cinema history, which at least makes them sort of notable. But Noé’s sense of visual invention fails him when it comes to the frequent scenes of penetration, masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus et al: they’re almost uniformly shot in long takes, from a distance or above the participants. The result isn’t just that there’s no sense of a new language being created for onscreen fucking, but that there’s a distance created that makes it neither particularly arousing for anyone nor particularly illuminating of the characters.
It’s in the latter instance that the film feels like such a missed opportunity. We all fuck differently, and a sex scene can be a vital tool to show the true nature of a character in the right hands (one of my favorite examples are the twin sex scenes in David Cronenberg’s “A History Of Violence,” for example). But Noé’s characters are cyphers with not much in the way of internal life beyond Murphy’s perpetual angst, and the scenes of coitus don’t reveal much behind the curtain. Rather, it’s just a selection of attractive people having some sex.
Then again, the director doesn’t seem that interested in exploring his characters or even turning you on. A number of characters in the film are called Noé or Gaspar (the director even playing one such character under a pseudonym) and Murphy’s an obvious surrogate for the filmmaker. The sex is decidedly phallocentric (even the POV shot from inside a vagina is literally centered on a penis), and obsessed with the male orgasm, complete with obligatory 3D cumshot. If there’s a female orgasm at any point, I don’t recall it (and the camera certainly doesn’t linger over one).
In other words, this is Noé not so much exploring sex as exploring his own sexuality, which proves to be surprisingly vanilla and lacking in trangression for such a Vice-generation favorite. He makes some plays at being bohemian and free-spirited, flirting with threesomes and infidelity, but he’s ultimately fairly conservative —he implicitly freaks out at an encounter with a transgender woman and is obsessed with seed and sex resulting in procreation. To the film’s credit, there’s some degree to which Noé appears to be criticizing his surrogate’s sexual viewpoints, but the content of the rest of the movie suggests that he’s all too supportive of these interests.
Maybe the problem is that it’s kind of boring watching other people repeatedly fucking on a big screen once the novelty fades. But I suspected after seeing “Love” that the issue is that Noé didn’t want to make a film about fucking. He was simply jerking off.