Published on December 23rd, 2015 | by Craig Silliphant0
Love is Gaspar Noé’s latest controversial film, exploring sex on film with real on screen sex. Is it a steamy gimmick or an important message?
I don’t usually like movies about sex. I just find them boring. Is that weird or universal? I don’t know. But before you judge me, keep in mind that I grew up in the age of movies like Color of Night and 9 ½ Weeks, films that assume excitement comes from showing some sweaty thrusting and heaving bosom instead of investing in good story and characters. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t watch Sex, Lies, and Videotape for a long time because I assumed it would be along these lines. It’s not — it’s an excellent psychological drama that is actually more about a lack of sex.
Anyway, I’ve never really figured out if this is a quirk on my part or a legitimate critical complaint, but I think it comes down to the fact that the sex is not usually there to move the story forward. It’s most often there so the movie can garner a steamy reputation. After all, sex sells, right? (Sex didn’t sell in the case of Color of Night or 9 ½ Weeks — both movies flopped at the box office. They did do better on home video though — so maybe people didn’t want to sit in a public theatre with a stirring in their loins. Better to save that for home, right?). At the risk of sounding vulgar (the movie we’re about to talk about will take us there anyhow, so if you can’t beat em’, join em’), if you want explicit nudity on screen, why not just delve into the pornographic arts instead of bonering your way through a bad movie because it has some spicy sex scenes?
With his latest film, Love, Gaspar Noé wants to change all that and make a movie about the connection between love and sex, among other things. Never a stranger to controversy in his movies, Love is perhaps the least aggressive of Noé’s films, though it has made waves for being truly pornographic. That is to say, the actors are actually having sex. How coitus will be treated is clear from the opening moments, where we ease into the movie by way of a surprisingly tender jerk-off scene. It’s also worth noting that while I saw this movie in 2D, it was actually released in 3D, so there is at least one scene where the audience takes a 3D cumshot to the face. (Gee, now that I’ve embraced the vulgarity of where this movie goes, I feel free to say things like cumshot. Thank you Gaspar, for freeing me from my Victorian chains).
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away because there are a couple of twists and turns, but Love is the story of an American named Murphy, who lives in Paris, and the highly sexual relationship he has with a French woman named Electra. Years after they have parted ways, Electra’s mother calls to say that her daughter has disappeared, which throws Murphy for a loop and he recalls their past relationship in a somewhat impressionistic manner. Sex scenes aside (let’s unpack those in a moment), the story did pull me in at the start. It unfolds out of chronological sequence, which makes for some strong dramatic irony. Through his flashbacks, like some sort of artsy, pornographic, demented (500) Days of Summer, we begin to learn why he hates himself so much.
The movie looks stellar, with some lovely composition, like the sparse mise en scène when Murphy and Electra sit in a café booth, discussing her family, the camera pulling out slowly to reveal a mural on the wall behind them. It’s stylish, in everything from some of the shots and the lighting to the soundtrack. A lot of it reminded me of films like Drive or Thief.
Riffing on Drive may or may not be intentional, but Noé is indeed dropping reference after reference to other films. There’s an art gallery that looks like the washed out white room at the end of 2001, posters of Salo and Birth of a Nation on his wall, and a t-shirt he wears that says Fassbinder, but in the style of the Metallica logo (I gotta get me one of those shirts!). Love references movies, movies about sex, and Noe’s life and his own movies. The child in the film is named Gaspar, and you can see a small-scale model of the Love Motel from Enter the Void in Murphy’s bedroom (or should I call it, the Lovenasium?). The movie revels in its intertextuality.
Now, put on your latex gloves, because I promised we’d get elbow deep in the sex scenes. While they are extremely explicit, moreso than an actual porno at some points, they are often tender enough to seem less exploitive than a sweaty Hollywood dick-swinging exercise from Bruce Willis or Mickey Rourke. However, while they are well done, they are also unnecessarily long. One artful threesome set to the strains of Maggotbrain comes to mind, and Maggotbrain is a long song, man. So, now you have a movie that’s over two hours long, but a good chunk of that runtime is just watching people fuck.
But here’s where Noé challenged my thinking about sex on film. Is the sex really that important to this movie? Or is it just a gimmick? Why is a movie with sustained sex scenes a bad thing, when 2001, a movie with indulgent space scenes is hailed as genius? Love is presenting a story about sex, but it’s also presenting an exploration of, and a case for, sex in movies. We give kudos for realism in film, but few movies realistically portray the act of sex. I had to admit to myself that I sometimes unfairly dismiss sex in film.
For the first half of the movie, I was entranced by some of these ideas and references to film. Unfortunately, Noé should have quit while he was ahead. Instead, somewhere after the middle of the film the brilliant subtext turns to a ten tonne anvil dropping from the sky. There are several scenes in the latter half of the film where Murphy goes on to loudly proclaim the thesis of the movie, instead of letting my brain explore these ideas while the images provoked me. As well, in the second half of the film, the pacing gets wonky and certain characters and plots take a backseat or disappear as the story meanders painfully. What started out as a beautiful and challenging film becomes indulgent and affected. Sex becomes masturbation.
That said, I would definitely say that there’s enough worth here for cinephiles and Noé fans to dig into. It gets worse as it goes, but when the movie is really working, it’s thought provoking and atmospheric (you know, when you’re not getting blasted in the face with a cumshot). I don’t know if it fully changes my mind about sex movies, but it did give me some ideas to ponder.