NSFW! NSFW! The marketing campaign for Gaspar Noé‘s hotly, wetly anticipated “Love” (in 3D!) threatened to do for that acronym what early ’90s hip-hop did for the Parental Advisory sticker. But laying to rest any fears that it was all a publicity ploy and Noe was going to pull a massive bait and switch and give us “A Room with a View,” the film starts with a happy ending: the two attractive stars lie splayed on top of one another in media res of an act of vigorous mutual masturbation, that eventually comes to its predictable, sticky conclusion. You’ll be glad to know that the terrible infant’s latest film is almost wholly Not Safe For Work, unless you work at a porn store, or a sperm bank, or a film blog, in any of which cases it may seem unsatisfying for your purposes anyway, though for slightly different reasons.
Perhaps I should start by mentioning that there are no winners in the game of defending “Love,” because there are many, many, many things wrong with it, any one of which would be cause enough to reject the film outright. It is snoozingly overlong and almost comically self indulgent (I say “almost” because the one thing this provocateur never wants to provoke is a reaction of laughter). To the latter point, I can’t remember any other director ever simultaneously imagining himself as the empty-headed, dickish but pretty leading man (an aspiring filmmaker who namechecks “2001” as is Noé’s wont); the leading lady’s older, married ex-boyfriend (who is called Noé); and a fetus (the baby is going to be called Gaspar even before he is born). It’s half a heartbeat away from displaying “Noe Woz ‘Ere” graffiti on every surface that’ll take a Sharpie. Additionally, it is heteronormative to its core, casually homophobic in language at times, and un-casually transphobic in its chickenshit treatment of its one transgender sex scene. It’s not particularly well-acted, except by the baby who is a Method genius, though the stars are certainly “brave” in the euphemistic sense, and the dialogue ranges from bland to risible. And yet, and yet…
And yet Noe, aided by DP Benoit Debie, does know a thing or two about arranging a scene for maximum beauty, and here seems to have been inspired to shoot the too-many acts of vigorous boning with a surprisingly lyrical wash over the graphic details of penises, pubic hair, boobs and bums (no vaginas, though, except once from the inside). An early threesome scene is a lovely tangle of limbs and hair and pink tongues, and the way he lights and choreographs sex scenes in passageways manages to make a blow job in a corridor look epic and romantic, rather than plain old seedy (which is obviously where it ends, though). And the film is slickly edited too, with the flashbacks and flash forwards signalled by blink-like cuts to black and often characterized by actions and framings that match across the edit.
The 3D also adds more than just the obligatory head-on ejaculation shot in which streams of rather fake looking semen spurt directly at your eyes (I’ll be honest, I’d have thought it a cop-out if one such shot wasn’t there). In fact the added dimensionality works best outside the sex scenes: a switch of stock to indicate home video footage gave a dizzying but enjoyable shift of perspective, and some of Noe’s traditional flourishes, like laser lit nightclubs and text on screen, look dipped in newness seen in 3D.
It’s telling that I’m this far into the review and I haven’t talked about story or character yet, but the outline is that Murphy (Karl Glusman) an American in Paris, meets and falls hard for Electra (Aomi Muyock). They experiment with sex and drugs, while the rock ‘n’ roll part is provided by an eclectic, fun soundtrack that includes Satie and Bach, cuts from various John Carpenter and giallo soundtracks, plus “Cannibal Holocaust,” among other unexpected treats (the posters that adorn the apartment walls also speak to Noe’s far-ranging but questionable cinephilia, I mean, “Birth of a Nation“? Really?) But then one of Murphy’s infidelities leads to a pregnancy and Electra leaves him. The film flickers between Murphy’s current circumstances about which he moans in whispered woe-is-me voiceover, and the rise and fall of his relationship with Electra.
So, yes, there is no real story, essentially. And its overweeningly aestheticized approach serves to divorce the often compelling images from the reality, or indeed the politics, of what they represent–so there is nothing of the manifesto here either. It’s not even about these characters, because they are too severely underwritten to get a feel for them as anything but the attractive fleshsacks between whom the fluids, recriminations and murmured endearments that Noe is actually interested in fly back and forth. This in fact is not a film about people, it is a film about the thing that exists between them—not “Love” necessarily, but as Noe proxy Murphy calls it: “sentimental sexuality.”
It’s a phrase that points to the no man’s land Noe ends up in—because while the sexuality is pushed far too far for mainstream audiences, it’s also true that Noe’s conception of sentiment and romance pulls the film back from being truly transgressive about its gender or sexuality politics. And it may be hardcore XXX but this is Noe at his most softhearted following the brutality of “Irreversible” and his most straightforward, following the mindfuckery of “Enter the Void” so it may even leave his fans feeling underwhelmed. Still it would be disingenuous to suggest I wasn’t diverted and occasionally dazzled by its 3D visuals, often entranced in that visceral, pure cinema kind of way, which is itself remarkable for happening during a Gaspar Noe film apparently designed to “give guys a hard-on and make girls cry.” I didn’t cry and as far as I could make out, not a lot of the other thing happened either, but a softer Noe (not a hard-on pun I promise) does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.