Can pornography be art? Does containing pornographic scenes make something pornography? Does showing unsimulated sex get at something more honest about love and relationships than the typical, idealized Hollywood take on sexuality? There are all questions that writer/director Gaspar Noé is tackling in his newest film, Love. Noé is, the provocateur behind Irreversible and Enter the Void, a pair of hard-hitting art films that brought him international renown while simultaneously repulsing half the people who saw them on a fairly visceral level, but Love is more restrained. Which, if you've seen Love, is really saying something about the previous two films.
Gaspar Noé Love doesn't try to hide what it is; the film opens with an out-of-context, single-take scene in which a nude woman strokes a man's erect penis while he slowly fingers her. They never speak during this scene, offer no context for their relationship except for their bodies. They're clearly posed to show off their bodies, breasts, bush, and penis all at the forefront, faces semi-motionless. It's tame by the standards of what's to come, essentially a pair of hand-jobs. And yet, to see it on Amazon Instant Video, or in a traditional movie theater - to see him ejaculate, to see her taste it, to then see these characters recontextualized in a very typical sort of relationship drama - I admit, there is some power there.
Noé opens on a shock, but Love quickly settles into its rhythms as a film, specifically an indie film. It's heavily invested in the quarter-life suburban ennui engulfing the life of white, lower-middle class man. Murphy has a kid with a beautiful women he doesn't love, and he spends his time sleepwalking through life, pining for an even more beautiful, responsibility-free woman who left him two years ago after he cheated on her. At the start of the film, his his ex's mother calls to say that she hasn't seen her daughter in two months, checking to see if Murphy has seen her. We flash back to watch Murphy cheat on Electra with Omi; to see him break the news to her that Omi is pregnant; to see him destroy old relationships stalking and emotionally abusing Electra after she dumps him; to see them meet and fall in love and fight and fall apart. Noé has used the flashback heavy structure to devastating effect before, in films like the brutal Irreversible, but in Love, he puts it to far more traditional use, showing the formation and collapse of a relationship between a pair of volatile young artists. Like Annie Hall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and last year's excellent Appropriate Behavior, Love uses its flashback laden structure to perform a post-mortem on a failed romance; unlike those films, Love is also clumsily performed and poorly written.
It relies far, far too heavily on voice-over - incredibly clumsy, blatantly obvious voice over, the sort delivered in a gritty rumble that's supposed to sound exhausted but mostly just sound constipated. It doesn't help that the language is shockingly clumsy - I don't think there's an actor alive who could have fixed this early-film exchange, for example:
Omi: You have become a little bit fat, no?
Murphy (voice-over): Yeah, I'm fat. My dick is fat. She's so bitter sometimes. There's nothing for me here, except for this little guy. I hope she won't turn him gay.
But Noé isn't working with the best actors alive. Part of the problem with Love is that Noé wanted to shoot hardcore, full-penetration sex scenes in his indie drama, and that... well, it pretty strongly limits the pool of actors you can work with. Rami Malek can pull off the sleepwalking stupor in Mr. Robot and still express intense pathos with his eyes and voice; Karl Glusman can't even come close to pulling it off. The ladies fare better, but neither Aomi Muyock nor Klara Kristin are stuck with quite as much turgid dialogue as Glusman, too, so it evens out.
Still, the experiment isn't a total failure. Noé is a talented director, even if he can't write a human exchange to save his life, and for a relationship drama - or a porno - this is stylishly shot. He uses match-cuts heavily to shift between past and future fluidly, making blunt-but-powerful statements about what's on his characters' minds without the need for the oppressive voice-over. A half-second black screen bisects many scenes, functioning as edits but often changing nothing. It's an artificial pulse, a throb inserted into a scene, that works well as an attention grabbing editing technique that sets up rhythm.
And he shoots the unsimulated sex scenes in long, fluid takes at a distance, allowing the eroticism to come from watching bodies in motion, from the curvature of the spine or a giddy smile rather than from actually seeing the penetration - a fascinating directorial decision, given that the unsimulated sex was, in many ways, a major part of the film's marketing and casting. Given that the film's gaze is explicitly male - it's a series of Murphy's flashbacks; at times, it's literally Murphy filming Electra - Noé never even approaches the exploitative brutality of modern pornographic cinematography, opting for long takes, tasteful edits, and a tendency to film his women either in full-body shots or just their faces, refusing to break them down to a series of composite body parts. Indeed, because of some of the angles Noé relies upon, the sex might seem analytical and cold to some.
What's more, the sex in the film tells a story. Some of it is playful; some of it is angry; some of it is rushed. It's filmed differently, staged differently, lit differently, depending on whether it's a gritty scene in which Murphy and Elektra make-up or a reminiscing fantasy about a threesome. A late film sex montage following a fight scene is powerfully shot, at least until Noé - as he does - takes things too far and has the main character ejaculate directly at the camera. Even most traditionally pornographic scenes tend to be beautifully lit and well-staged, obscuring as much as it shows and using heavy, almost surrealistic lighting to set a tone. The sex scenes never really justify their length or frequency, but the distant-but-passionate way Noé films them does at least feel of a part with the film's more traditional elements rather than porno interludes stuck in the middle of an indie drama.
The problem with porn, I think, is not with the nature of putting 'real' sex on the screen, but in the juvenile-macho posturing that defines so much of mainstream pornography - and, unfortunately, while Noé distances his film from the style and visuals of modern porn, he can't escape that posturing. Noé's Love never finds a way to stand out from the crowd of other films that have attempted something similar, whether it's using unsimulated sex to heighten the extremity of the dark comedy in Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, or to fully immerse audiences in the brutality of French rape-revenge thriller Baise-Moi. Perhaps the most compelling counterpoint is 1981's landmark queer film Taxi Zum Klo, another lived-in drama that used its raw sexuality to tell a painfully earnest story about its lead's personal and romantic life.
But Taxi Zum Klo had a sense of humor, a semblance of subtlety, an understanding of what it needed to show us and what it needed to tell us. The general beats of the narrative are the same: A relationship begins, infidelity ensues, fights happen, life goes on. Indeed, the male lead in both films is an amateur filmmaker, even. But where Noé's Love is a technical marvel that lacks emotional nuance, Taxi Zum Klo is all heart, all emotion. The film, a series of loosely connected scenes about life as a gay man in 1970s Berlin, uses its sex first to explore that world, but as the film progresses, Frank Ripploh also uses it to portray addiction and decline, the way he feels his base urges fight his more mature relationships every step of the way.
What's more, Ripploh takes that philosophy of explicitness and applies it to everything about this character and his world. Frank talk about STD's with a prostitute give way to an incredibly visual portrayal of an STD test. By making everything explicit, Ripploh has turned what may very well have been called gay porn by some into something more like documentary, a chronicle of his character's self-destructive relationship with his own body. His honesty creates worlds in the imagination of the modern viewer. Noé, for all his interest in using sex to find a small core of untouched emotional honesty, is only interested in doing so when it looks good to straight white men. Love is often lovely, but rarely is it terribly deep. Today's provocative indie drama somehow manages to be less provocative, edgy, and empathetic than that of 35 years prior.
In part because of Love's lack of a thesis and disinterest in looking at anything ugly, it's easy to tag Love as a work of incredible pretension. Its lead, Murphy, is a film student who badly wants to make movies that show sex and relationships honestly; he badly wants to have a male child named Gaspar; Electra has an ex named Noé (played by Gaspar Noé himself). This is clearly at least semi-autobiographical, an attempt to recapture a specific, visceral, very physical sense of feeling. And there's a degree to which it succeeds! Noé's editing is on point, as is much of the film's visual sensibility. And Noé's core thesis, that honest, sentimental sexuality, with at least some of the artifice of pornography stripped away, can say something genuine, something new, does seem to bear some fruit here. Noé is far from the first artist to realize this and he doesn't pull it off as well as his forebears, but it remains a powerful novelty.
Love is a fascinating film, with gorgeous editing and evocative design decisions. But it's held back by a hackneyed script - seriously, the 'modern day' segments that open the film are truly abysmal, and while the flashback stuff is better, that's less a compliment and more a condemnation of the film's first 30 minutes - and a couple performers with severely limited range. Noé is technically inventive and visually innovative, but a relationship drama needs more than that to fully work. Love is blunt when it needs to be subtle, and it very literally cums in your face when it needs to be blunt. It's Noé's most approachable film, and his least interesting that I've seen to date.
Love is available now on VOD rental services such as Amazon Instant Video and Google Play. Written and directed by Gaspar Noé, Love stars Karl Glusman and Aomi Muyock.
Trigger warning for a brief scene of transphobia and graphic sexuality.