In the films of Argentinian director Gaspar Noé, no scene of pain or desire is cut short. Noé often urges audiences deeper into moments that might normally be reduced to a suggestive kiss or a glimpse of a wound, or censored altogether. Perhaps the most famous example from his work is a 12-minute-long rape scene in the middle of his dizzying revenge flick Irréversible. The title of the film plays upon the sequencing of the scenes in the film, which run backwards through time. This, plus the sickening swerve of the frequently upside-down camera makes the single, level shot of the rape scene all the more stark and unnerving, like being in the eye of a hurricane. Another example comes from the opening scene of Carne—Noé’s 1991 short, the first of his films to be screened at Cannes—wherein a horse is killed, drained of blood, and flayed. It only lasts about a minute, but you get the picture.
Love is, redundantly, the title of Noé’s exquisite new 3D film, which opens with a man and a woman attentively, rhythmically jerking one another off to careening violin music. Love may soon be referred to as “that unsimulated sex movie,” a type of film that has been pretty much verboten in the history of Western cinema. There are some digitally inserted (i.e. computer animated) porn star genitals in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013); there’s Vincent Gallo receiving a blowjob from Chloë Sevigny in Brown Bunny (2003); some body-double intercourse in the opening scene of Anti-Christ (2009), von Trier again. Before now, Noé too has dabbled in the art of faking it: in Irréversible, an erect penis was tacked onto Monica Bellucci’s rapist in postproduction; in Enter the Void (2009), there’s a special effects shot of two characters having vaginal intercourse from inside the woman’s vagina.
Still, Love is by far Noé’s most hardcore film, although it has a fairly standard narrative, and a stable approach to communicating it. (Love was shot in Paris, and the script is in English). The film tells the story of an artist couple in their early twenties, Murphy (Karl Glusman) and Electra (Aomi Muyock), who fuck and tease and live in Paris. Murphy is a dashing, idealistic American film student with a sweet, devotional disposition, but quick to jealousy. Electra is a beaux arts student “from everywhere,” with a way of rolling each word of French-inflected English upon her tongue as if kissing it goodbye. As the relationship wears on they fight, use more drugs, put their work aside, and start bringing outsiders into their sex life, sometimes without the other’s permission. Eventually Murphy gets another woman, named Omi (Klara Kristin), pregnant, Electra dumps him when he tells her, and he ends up having a son and settling down.
Most of the film’s action occurs in Murphy’s flashbacks to his relationship with Electra, while on opium, which he ingests to ease the pain of losing her two years earlier. Murphy’s memory of Electra comes as an aberration—one day her mother calls him saying Electra’s been missing; she’s going through all her old contacts to find her. Her sudden absence is an unbidden appearance for Murphy, who’s been locked out of love ever since Electra slammed the door on him. Since then he’s resigned himself to raise his kid, whom he genuinely seems to love, with a woman he never cared for much and has come to resent. Much of what we hear from present-day Murphy is internal dialogue of him bemoaning his bad luck, the “prison” the apartment he once shared with Electra has become. “I’m a loser,” Murphy declares from within his own head. “Yeah. Just a dick.”
In contrast to the stomach-churning, nausea-inducing ethos of many of Noé’s past projects, Love is easy to swallow. Shot for shot it’s a gorgeous film with a romantic naturalism that’s wonderful to get swept up in. It is, as Noé told director Matthew Barney in a 2014 BOMB magazine interview, “a love story told from a sexual point of view,” and a range of feelings, from affection to mutual and self hatred, pass quite apparently between the bodies of the protagonists. For instance, after a particularly nasty fight, the sexual power dynamics between the two shift, with Murphy becoming more dominant. A blowjob scene cuts to him rapidly taking her from behind cuts to sex standing before a club bathroom mirror, Electra’s breath slowly clouding her reflection. Other scenes are breathtakingly sentimental, so poignant they inspire thrusts of the heart, rather than of the hips. The couple lies tangled up in bed, darkness swoops all around. Electra demands of Murphy, “Show me how tender you can be”—a provocation to Noé, the notoriously gruesome auteur, as much as it is to him.
Visually, Love doesn’t speak the language of memory the way that Noé’s 2010 movie Enter the Void evokes the physical feeling of a drug trip in most every shot. There’s no confusion, fragmentation, or magic tricks. But the film does at times brilliantly evoke the fantasy of having been in love, the kind that is only strengthened by its catastrophic demise. The flashbacks are saturated with the excess of young adult love: the door to Electra’s apartment, her favorite turtleneck sweater, her shaggy coat, the silk robe she barely wears and the sheets she lays down in it upon, are all red. A delicate, sentimental song will overlay the pounding music of a club scene; the dialogue often appears selectively saccharine; the lights never go off, though so much of the film takes place at night. All this effectively hints at a story that is unfolding at an intimate, worshipful distance from love.
Noé implants shards of himself and of his authorial point of view throughout, a ploy that both intensifies and degrades this artificially-lit intimacy. It intensifies because it kills lingering questions about Noé’s intentions; it degrades because it can get damn distracting. There are little self-insertions, like that Electra’s ex is named Noé, or that Murphy names his child Gaspar. Murphy’s favorite movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey, he’s an aspiring film director in Paris, and so forth. But Noé takes this to another level when he has Murphy regurgitate ad nauseam the thesis of the movie. “I want to make movies out of blood, sperm, and tears,” he proclaims in one scene. And later, “My dream is to make a movie that truly depicts sentimental sexuality. Why haven’t we seen this in cinema!” Perhaps it is a continuation of Noé’s predisposition to expound to the last, but it comes off more as justification than revelation.
The climax of this self-conscious, self-mythologizing filmmaking is the scene where Murphy looks through a stereoscope at old pictures of Electra. Later the film flashes back to the couple looking through these pictures together. The stereoscope layers two separate images so that they seem to fuse together, adding depth—how people got their 3D jollies in the days before Noé’s projectile cum shots. In this moment 3D technology joins with its predecessor to unearth something deep: the wild, unreasonable request of memory to overcome the flat, the seen, and to be transported to the lived moment once more. In other words, the desire that sentimentality dresses up.