The French cinematic outlaw Gaspar Noe loves to provoke his audience. It seems to be his job. And it’s clear that he’s immensely enjoying himself. Throughout his overwhelmingly intense career as a filmmaker, he’s fashioned a body of work that could best be described as ugly-beautiful; he’s a man who sees genuine wonder and sometimes transcendent beauty in some of the most vile and visceral moments of human behavior. If I Stand Alone and Irreversible were both endurance tests and warm-ups for his magnum opus, Enter the Void, his newest picture, the hardcore sex drama Love, represents a nicer Noe to adventurous cinema lovers. Not that he’s not interested in taking his audience on a sometimes surreal, all the time wild ride through the sexual relationships of a particular trio, because in this film, which was presented in some theaters in 3-D, Noe joins the ranks of other filmmakers (Michael Winterbottom, Catherine Breillait, etc) who show honest sexual behavior as a way of communicating truth and reality to the viewer. Because our society is still so openly Puritanical, especially in America, where nothing is thought of if heads explode on TV but freak-outs occur if nipples are unleashed, this movie will certainly shock those who are unprepared for what Noe has up his sleeve, or I guess, in this instance, down in his pants.
The film’s very first scene, a three minute static shot of a man and a woman mutually pleasuring each other, sets the tone immediately, and it’s because Noe forces you to watch in an unblinking fashion that the action becomes more than just a rush of primal sexual energy, but a glimpse into the private world of two people who seemingly have a lot of affection for each other. The story to Love centers on a guy named Murphy (Karl Glusman), an aspiring American filmmaker living in Europe who enters into a volatile relationship with damaged-goods stunner Electra (Aomi Muyock), a dark haired vixen who runs away with Murphy’s heart and libido. As the two of them have always fantasized about a threesome, they bring a sexy young blonde into the mix named Omi (Klara Kristin), and in the film’s sexual centerpiece, you see the three of them make love for what seems to be an eternity; this sequence is easily one of the most rigorously and sensually realized bits of on-screen sexuality that I’ve ever seen, and it’s sort of insane (and sort of cool) to learn that Noe didn’t necessarily choreograph what went down during this sequence and others during the film.
But things get very complicated when Murphy begins an outright affair with Omi, gets her pregnant, and then Electra snaps, which sends the film down some narrative paths that it’s not necessarily interested in answering, offering more of a mosaic atmosphere and stressing its nonlinear structure as a way of showing the emotional complications that stem from people not being able to accept the past and move on. And like the sexual content of Blue is the Warmest Color, you feel an undeniable passion during each carnal encounter, with the film achieving an incredible sense of primal energy that frequently bubbles to the surface. The rest of the film is your typical Noe shock fest, with trips to neon-lit sex clubs with strobe light effects, discussions of fate, life, death, drugs, movies, and infidelity. I liked the film, but I never fell head over heels for it like I did with Enter the Void, which I consider to be one of the most amazing cinematic experiences that I’ve ever encountered.
The acting in Love is rough around the edges, as it was probably hard to find extremely skilled thespians who would be willing to get as down and dirty as Noe wanted them to get. Glusman, in particular, strains to achieve the emotional heft required to make the audience truly care about his plight, and the fact that he’s not the most likable of characters isn’t helped by the lack of subtlety required to turn his role into something more than two dimensional. And while I liked the content of the voice over that Noe wrote, Glusman’s reading of the lines seemed strangely flat. Nothing particularly enlightening is offered from a narrative POV, and while certainly stylish and glisteningly photogenic (Noe’s regular cinematographer Benoit Debie was behind the sinuous camera yet again), there’s a reserved sense of normalcy in comparison to Noe’s other works. I’m glad I experienced Love, but unlike Enter the Void, I don’t have the immediate desire to revisit, and with Noe, I am always expecting and prepared to have that itch, even if it’s an itch that can never be scratched again (Irreversible is the only film I can’t watch a second time, despite many attempts and an interest in doing so). Love is currently available in its completely uncensored form via Netflix streaming and Amazon streaming, and will hit Blu-ray on March 15.