Oh man, it is good to be able to write one of these on a laptop again. Everything posted since the Crimson Peak review has been done on a Sony Xperia phone. Up to the job, patience permitting, but I’ve banked a whole load of finger cramping in the process. Anyway, on to the matter at hand, this review of Gaspar Noé’s new film Love.
There’s strangeness to what we find taboo or controversial in cinema. Horrendous acts of violence in so much straight-to-DVD horror is so commonplace as to have become trivial, trite, expected even. While most Hollywood action fodder exposes viewers to near-constant stuttering gunfire. Even modern cinema’s purest heroes can be forgiven for causing untold deaths. Yet sex and love-making, fundamentally natural human acts, are much harder to justify on-screen. This is something Noé attempts to address with Love; a film he admits is inspired in part by the European erotica of the 70s that he saw growing up. Though these movies were ‘softcore’ they attempted stories, had characters with emotional responses and featured a more ‘natural’ look than modern hardcore pornography; something any of us can access at the click of a browser should we wish to.
Noé – ever the sensationalist – has made a hardcore film featuring unsimulated sex acts from the very first scene, but his intent is to craft a film that marries extremely explicit material with a story bound by an emotional connection. Can real sex be a part of cinema and recognised as art? Why shouldn’t it be?
Love introduces us to a young American man living in Paris named Murphy (Karl Glusman). He learns of the disappearance and potential death of a former lover, Elektra (Aomi Muyock). This sends him into a whirling tailspin of memories, which we flit through over the ensuing two hours, as we learn of his relationship with Elektra, his love for her, and their exploratory sexual relationship which at times caused rifts between them.
During one of their intimate times together, Elektra admitted that her sexual fantasy was to have a threesome with another woman. Murphy’s fantasy is the same. As luck would have it they have a new neighbour, the open-minded Omi (Klara Kristin). Cue an inevitably complicated ménage a trois which changes the paths of all those swept up in it.
Noé has an earned reputation for shock and for being one of European cinema’s most sensationalist tricksters, arguably outstripping the maestro in this field Lars Von Trier. The explicit scenes in Love mean that he won’t be giving up this mantle any time soon (see it in 3D for a coming-right-at-you climax scene, pun whole-heartedly intended), yet if anything Love feels restrained and measured when compared to the disorienting techniques that typified his last two excursions; 2009’s Enter The Void and 2002’s Irreversible. Gone for the most part are the whirling camera moves and trippy flourishes. Love is preoccupied more with static shots (particularly in the bedroom), or quietly roaming scenes following characters walking and talking.
Which is not to suggest that Love sees Noé leaving his ego at the door. Far from it. If anything, the sheer indulgence displayed in this movie makes it his most gauche. Murphy clearly embodies Noé himself; he’s an idealistic filmmaker who goes so far as to proclaim a desire to create cinema’s first film about “sentimental sexuality”. Murphy’s flat is dotted with posters from cinema history, ranging from the likes of The Birth Of A Nation to Salo. Murphy cites that his favourite film is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film which has recurred as an influence throughout Noe’s work. These are overtly self-aware touches. Noe even appears in Love himself, unpleasantly echoing Tom Six’s cameo earlier this year in a far less laudable slice of shock-cinema; The Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence. To his credit, however, Noé at least plays a character and not just himself. But this self-consciousness takes a toll. At one point I was even moved to ponder if he had revisited the same pedestrian subway that proved notorious in Irreversible purely out of self-referential verve.
These trappings don’t doom the film by any means, but they don’t particularly contribute anything either, except to remind us that as viewers we are participating in an exercise – more or less the opposite response to the intended one. We’re supposed to be captivated by Murphy, Elektra and Omi, feel for them, yearn for them. It’s clear that the intent on Noé’s part is to interlock sex with emotional investment. Yet the constant reminders that this is something of an experiment wrenches us out of that illusion.
The performances here aren’t terrible – you could argue they’re in fact quite brave – but they’re a little stilted, presumably through inexperience (Muyock and Kristin were not actors prior to Love). Nobody is as terrible as Paz de la Huerta was in Enter The Void, say, but they don’t encourage immersion, especially as Noé decorates the film with so many of his own flourishes.
Visually, the film is almost always impeccable. Noé may have toned down his theatrics, but he still knows how to make a frame look gorgeous, even if his preferred palette often remains in the spectrum of lurid reds, gammy oranges and deep blacks. When he does depict sex, it is often an immaculate, idealised version thereof, sensuously lit. Either that or, at another extreme, it’s a dingy, disreputable act. This is another of his films to feature a protracted excursion to an underground sex club, and another which gives the impression that such places are angular dungeons that don’t seem erotic in the slightest.
Indeed, toward the end scenes like this or Elektra and Murphy’s failed attempt to embark on a threesome with a transsexual feel like lengthy interruptions. I wanted to spend more time with the characters connecting in other ways, making the preoccupation with their sex lives feel obsessive and a little overcooked. Against the odds, Noe’s plan for me to get involved was working, but still the ingredients were out of balance.
Perhaps the key to our dismissal or distrust of sex on-screen is that, where it’s perfectly acceptable to admit you’re disgusted or frightened by horrific acts depicted on film, it’s less acceptable to admit to being aroused by cinema. At its most effective, cinema changes the way we feel. Feeling turned on by a movie is largely considered embarrassing or, in some circles, even shameful. I didn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed watching Love, but I did feel curiously disengaged and at times listless. The film is not a failure, but neither is it the kind of cinematic landmark Noé evidently wishes to achieve. He should stop worrying about his legacy, which will sort itself out anyway. Irreversible alone already assures he will leave one. Love ultimately feels a little too clumsy, even if there’s great sincerity in what it’s attempting to achieve.