For years the cinematic provocateur and smirking wiseass at the back of the art house film class Gaspar Noe has promised (or perhaps threatened) to make an X-rated love story. The thought of making some sort of arty spin on dirty movies has of course been a dream of many since the days when porn was considered socially progressive (see Boogie Nights), yet Noe is perhaps the first filmmaker to commit fully to the concept and deliver on the promised experimental and salacious extremes. He also shot it in 3D. So yeah, Love isn’t for everybody. Yet for those will to approach the movie with right level of high n’ dirty mindedness, there’s no denying that the filmmaker has delivered something intriguing. It’s also oddly the softest of the director’s movies. Go figure.
After opening with a deliberately confrontational sequence of mutual fondling, Love settles into its non-linear (wait for it) love story. We meet Murphy (Karl Glusman), an American film student in Paris who feels trapped in a relationship with the teenage Omi (Klar Kristin), with whom he shares a son (I’ll leave the child’s name a surprise for viewers as it will get some snickers). He then receives a phone call from the mother of his ex, Electra (Aomi Muyock), saying that she’s gone missing. That sends Murphy into a depressive spiral that plays out their love story in flashback. Murphy and Electra met as students, fell madly in love, and did the things that lovers do. Not just that by the way (although there’s obviously plenty of it), but the bickering, and the pseudo-philosophizing, and the tenderness, and the jealousy, and the experimenting, and everything else. It actually feels like a fairly realistic relationship. Granted it’s one that plays out among a pair of self-absorbed jerks, but at least they are believably self-absorbed jerks. So perhaps that’s the point.
Aside from a CGI-enhanced splash at the camera that’s exactly what you’d imagine and a few other graphic close-ups, Noe’s sex romp feels surprisingly non-pornographic. The typically visually excessive filmmaker tends to film most of the rimpy-pumpy from a detached birds eye-view. It makes the audience voyeurs on a couple’s private time, and also explores the way sex between two attached people can mean many different things at many different times in a relationship. That’s actually a fairly interesting approach to a self-conscious sex movie and one that does at least try to justify all of the X-rated excess. As easy as it might be to superficially dismiss the filmmaker’s goals here as adolescent titillation, Noe actually is interested in making a relationship movie and commits to it with his heart on his sleeve.
Sure, the acting from the central trio varies from being quite good to the sort of off-tune performance typical of X-rated entertainment, but for the most part the movie feels genuine and the depiction of adult relationships is both tender and ugly. There are some of the dark and twisted images that Noe made a career out of in movies like Irreversible and Enter The Void. That’s to be expected. Yet, there are also plenty of emotionally raw scenes that feel like the beautiful and horrible games that couples play with each other. Asides in sex clubs (oddly playing the Escape From New York theme) and ill-fated affairs (including one with a cameo by Noe) go down dark allies. Yet for the most part Noe seems to be playing on emotions rather than shock, awe, and visceral visuals in a way he hasn’t often explored before. That shift will likely irritate some of his hardened fans and he’s past the point of courting a crowd that appreciates subtlety. However, Noe deserves credit for trying something new while still being his old shocking self.
There are of course plenty of directorial indulgences in play. How could there not be in a 3D X-rated dream project? Noe references his own work a few too many times and plasters walls with posters of movies he’s already professed his love for many times. The movie is likely a little too long and while there are some gorgeous 3D shots, the added dimension does feel like a gimmick from the Cannes’ equivalent of William Castle. Yet despite all the holes that can be poked in the project, there’s no denying that there is something interesting going on in Love beyond the sexy stunt. For better or worse Gaspar Noe has found some sort of middle ground between art and smut. Now the question will be which half of those divided audiences will embrace the film.