"I'm just a dick. And a dick has no brain," Murphy (Karl Glusman) berates himself early on in Gaspar Noé's Love. Packaged with the promise of making men hard and women wet, Noé's erotic opus makes no distinction between mind and flesh. An opium-addled eulogy for the tumultuous romance Murphy once shared with his ex-lover, Electra (Aomi Muyock), Love has been making waves since its premiere at Cannes for the bounty of un-simulated sex scenes it presents—in 3D, no less.
In many ways, Love is the natural next step for the Argentinian filmmaker whose auteurist stamp has come to redefine the term body genre. Noé's name is rarely uttered without qualifiers like "enfant terrible" or "provocateur." Indeed, his movies are designed to get a rise out of his audience—but they also provide an incomparable experience of visceral immersion. That experience is most frequently a painful one: In the director's 2002 film Irreversible, for example, which features one of the most horrifying rape scenes in cinematic history, Noé employed a particularly low sound frequency to induce actual nausea in viewers. Comparatively, Love is Noé's tamest film yet and nominally, at least, his most sentimental.
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The film's aesthetic harkens to vintage pornography. Replete with bushy pubic hair and dim red lighting, Love is the director's attempt to re-eroticize sex on-screen: Think more Penthouse, less PornHub. In making such a film, Noé has entered into a dialogue with other like-minded tales of sexually explicit, all-consuming copulation: Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses, Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, von Trier's Nymphomaniac, and Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color,__ to name a few. Like these sensualist predecessors, Love is a film that strives to depict sex as it's actually experienced—as an act whose gratifying outcome exists in direct proportion to the input of energy, perhaps emotion, and—most importantly—time. (Noé's portrayal of sex is a far cry from the Hollywood model, where orgasms are implied in mere seconds while nothing particularly noteworthy is happening under the covers.)
That Noé is as committed to the extended temporality of titillation as he is to the momentary pleasure of climax is evident right from the already-infamous opening scene—a lengthy mutual masturbation that's granted the time it needs to reach its inevitable conclusion. The director holds his frame steady while two young, beautiful bodies move their hands with rhythmic determination.
Fucking drives the non-chronological narrative.
Audiences and critics love to probe filmmakers about their techniques for rendering physical intimacy "real." In Nymphomaniac, von Trier superimposed the upper bodies of his actors onto the lower halves of porn star doubles who were the ones actually having sex. In Blue, the actresses were given prosthetic vaginas to free themselves from self-consciousness on set. But in Love, there's no "trick," per se. What you see is what you get; the actors are really doing the deed in real time. Noé's camera, however, might very well be the sexiest element of the movie. His scenes are decidedly adorned: with music, with careful framing, with color washes both warm and cold. They're graced by his camera movements and intruded upon by his exacting mise-en-scène. Not to mention that they come very close to actually touching us by way of the third dimension.
In the film's present, Murphy lives with Omi, a slight blonde and the mother of his flaxen-haired child (named Gaspar). He's suffocated by his relationship, even by his own apartment. ("This used to be mine," he laments.) When the news arrives that his ex-lover Electra has gone missing and may be on a suicidal drug binge, he goes straight for the last remaining vestige of her—a tiny opium pill she gave him before the break-up that's been stashed in his bookshelf ever since. He takes the tablet with the ceremony of a Eucharist, and Electra's body is reincarnated from the recesses of his mind (or maybe more accurately, his penis).
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From here, the film unspools as a series of obsessive, spiraling flashbacks that detail the sexual escapades of the central couple. But as much as Love is about sex, it's also about seeing—specifically, the way we experience time and memory. Every image is shaped by Murphy's tormented perspective; thus the film manages to sustain both an ache of realism and flourishes of fantasy.
Fucking, still, drives the non-chronological narrative. Each episode uncovers a little bit more about where the characters are in their relationship at any given point in time. In the throes of Murphy and Electra's honeymoon phase, their bodies are eager, tender, and utterly insatiable. Then comes the tumultuous period, when jealous drunken rages are juxtaposed against hardcore sex. "I'm not a slave to pussy!" Murphy yells on the phone at one point. Cut to: him kneeling in the stairwell of a seedy bar while Electra hikes up her skirt and lowers her pelvis toward his eager mouth.
Love's vision of its titular emotion is that it isn't an emotion at all, but rather an instinct.
Finally, the lovers reach the point where they need to make a concerted effort to try new things. There's a somewhat comic encounter with a transgender person in a motel room, a wild orgy at a sex club, and a threesome with the couple's pretty neighbor, Omi, which ultimately leads to the messy dissolution of the relationship.
If this sounds like a hell of a lot of intercourse, it is. But while the film's 135-minute running time feels unnecessarily long, it's not the sex that's gratuitous—it's the pesky narrative bits in between. The minor infidelities and dramas that unfold—between Murphy and Electra's ex, an older, well-to-do gallery owner played by Noé himself, for example—don't really add all that much. And while there's never any question that the physical alchemy between Murphy and Electra is the sort that may only come around once in a lifetime, their lock-and-key compatibility doesn't translate to the emotional connection the title implies—or that the characters proclaim to feel.
This is, in part, because neither character is especially engaging in their own right. They're constructed from signifiers of type rather than details. Murphy is an American film student living in Paris. He has posters of Noé's influences on his walls—Birth of a Nation, Saló—and cites 2001 as the reason he decided to become a director. But there's little evidence of any actual artistic productivity. He's just hot-headed, obsessive, and good in bed. As Electra, Aomi Muyock is a captivating presence to watch on-screen, but her flat, manic-Euro-dream-girl characterization is mildly infuriating. She touts vaguely defined aspirations of painting and poetry and says things like, "I'm from everywhere."
But who Murphy and Electra are as individuals is perhaps entirely beside the point. Love's vision of its titular emotion is that it isn't an emotion at all, but rather an instinct. These are merely the vessels the director has chosen to illustrate a point. Whether or not the film is a reflection of Noé's own feelings towards monogamous relationships (that they're unsustainable), the idea that we can be permanently crippled by something fundamentally fleeting makes Love as sadly beautiful as it is beautifully sad.