Gaspar Noé’s Love: Even before you learn that it’s in 3D, the mere juxtaposition of director and title — the idea that Noé would make an entire movie devoted to the most tender of emotions — makes it all seem like a crass joke. He is a filmmaker known for assaulting the senses, not caressing them. The centerpiece of his most controversial film, Irreversible (2002), is a lengthy, unflinching depiction of rape. Its follow-up, 2009’s Enter the Void, is a shaggy, psychedelic trip through the murder and afterlife of an American drug dealer in Tokyo, punctuated by harrowing memories.
In some senses, Noé is a classic provocateur: his films are engineered to make a visceral impact, and also maybe to piss off some viewers. What sets him apart is the way he uses moments of calculated shock and sensory overload to jar audiences into considering big philosophical questions: How do we experience time and memory? What happens after we die? Noé’s work is raw and cerebral all at once, but his inquiries are more abstract and less political than those of most other filmmakers who unite those extremes (Pasolini, Von Trier, Haneke). And he certainly has a sense of humor, albeit one that is equal parts bleak and perverse.
Despite its frequent silliness and the contrast between its sweet title and its explicit content, though, Love is not a joke. Like Noé’s other films, it has a dead-serious implicit philosophical mission: it’s an attempt to capture — or maybe even define — “love” through a case study of one heterosexual romance, rendered in all its uncensored, three-dimensional glory. We see its beginning, we watch it end, and we experience its painful aftereffects on the man who both initiates the relationship and causes its dissolution. Murphy (Karl Glusman) is an American in Paris, a young aspiring filmmaker who lives surrounded by posters for violent, controversial classics such as M, The Birth of a Nation, and Salò. He says things like, “I wanna make movies out of blood, sperm, and tears,” but doesn’t seem to have anything to show for those fluid-soaked ambitions. And Electra (Aomi Muyock) is his dream girl: a lovely French art-school student with whom he can share sex, drugs, and an artist’s lifestyle (if not an artist’s creative output).
But in Love‘s bleak present (the film disregards chronology out of fidelity to Murphy’s scattered memories and Noé’s preferred mode of storytelling), their relationship has been over for quite some time. Murphy lives with another woman, Omi (Klara Kristin), who he despises. They have a young son, Gaspar (there’s also a character named “Noé,” played by the director), who appears to be Murphy’s only remaining reason for living. When word reaches our hero that Electra has disappeared, he starts phoning everyone he can think of in an attempt to find her, but mostly allows himself to be engulfed by bittersweet memories of their time together — and incapacitated by the dose of opium that is his last remaining memento of her.
Many of these memories are sexually explicit. Apparently, when a man looks back on his time with his lost soulmate, it’s the unclothed bits that cut the deepest. If you’ve read anything at all about Love, you probably already know it’s packed with unsimulated, hardcore sex — between Murphy and Electra mostly, but we also glimpse a few of their encounters with other partners. And of course there’s the threesome, which brings Omi into the equation. This scene both represents the relationship’s point of no return and comprises the sole reason why some people will plunk down $14 to see the film. Those viewers will likely be satisfied with Love, as long as its general air of melancholy doesn’t kill their vibe.
Critics love to talk about how unsexy they find the sex in movies. They’re often right (plenty of sex onscreen doesn’t look at all appealing, or even realistic), but sometimes they’re just hiding their prudishness behind a veneer of discernment. So let me be clear: this movie’s problem is not the sex. Love’s most explicit scenes are hot and intimate and — give or take the occasional, sophomoric, closeup 3D cumshot that viewers are probably supposed to experience as the director asserting his sexual dominance over us all — essential to the story. They serve Noé’s shock-and-titillate strategy, but they’re also very specific to the characters, offering subtle insights into how they relate to each other and how their relationship evolves and devolves over time. At first, Murphy and Electra explore each other. Over time, they shed their inhibitions. And in their final encounters, they practically destroy each other.
Murphy, Noé implies, is a bit of what Tina Fey would call a “sex idiot.” A savant in the bedroom, he’s a mess of anger, neurosis, and straight-up stupidity in every other aspect of his life. (This hasn’t stopped Noé from making it even clearer in interviews than it is in the film that he identifies strongly with his protagonist. Murphy turns out to be his mother’s maiden name.) Curiously, Love has a similar problem. Its remarkable efficiency at using sex to illuminate intimacy and inject specificity into the lovers’ story doesn’t carry over into scenes where Electra and Murphy are talking or dancing or sharing a meal.
When they’re interacting verbally rather than physically, the characters feel too generic: Murphy is your standard aggressive, self-absorbed male nightmare who believes in taking what he wants and fighting anyone who threatens him. He makes his intentions clear, even if it means sounding like a pretentious windbag, and demarcates his boundaries, even if he doesn’t understand them or ends up violating them. Electra is the kind of beautiful, free-spirited woman who men like Murphy seem to think they deserve. Perhaps because we see her solely through his eyes, but also maybe because Noé finds her motivations less interesting, her personality only gets defined in opposition to his.
This is where Noé’s philosophical agenda comes into play. As much as it superficially resembles Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (an exploration of heartbreak through sexually explicit flashbacks) and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a wrenching demonstration of how memories of a past love can infect the present), the concepts at play in Love have much more in common with The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick’s 2011 film revolved around the idea that there are two ways to approach life: the way of nature — violent, closed off, resistant — is embodied by a man, and the way of grace — serene, open, accepting — is embodied by a woman.
Noé’s central lovers divide along the precisely the same lines, though the director manages to force them into embodying the dichotomy of America vs. France as well as male vs. female. One represents struggle, the other acquiescence. The fact that “female” appears to be the preferable option, in The Tree of Life as well as in Love, barely matters; essentialism is essentialism, no matter who comes out on top. And Noé is more committed to abstract, universe-explaining concepts than he is to women’s rights anyway (for what it’s worth, he used the latter much more effectively in service of the former in Irreversible). A scene where Omi announces she’s against abortion doesn’t just foreshadow her pregnancy; it also leads to Murphy’s proud protestation that he’s pro-choice. We’re not supposed to understand this chiefly as a feminist statement, even if he does. This is a conversation about whether you should fight fate or submit to it.
The movie’s less-than-flattering characterization of Murphy makes the abortion metaphor slightly uncomfortable. But what’s far worse, in a movie that aims to represent love more vividly and viscerally than anything we’ve seen on film before, is how restrictive its characterization of that emotion ends up being: love, says Love, is what happens when two opposing archetypes come together.
This is a departure from Noé’s past work — which, divisive as it is, not only allows for multiple interpretations, but also leaves space for the viewer to extrapolate, spinning off the filmmaker’s own wild assertions into grand theories of our own. That philosophical freedom is what gives his earlier films value, and the lack of it is what makes Love, with its adherence to worn-out binaries, a disappointment. Because down here in the real world, beyond the rarefied realm of ideas convenient to men like Noé and Malick, we’re slowly figuring out that binaries aren’t universal truths; they’re oversimplifications. Love isn’t about the masculine ideal colliding with the feminine ideal. Sex isn’t even necessarily about that. And life itself certainly isn’t. There are so many more than two ways to be a person.
Love is out Friday in limited release.