The cast holds nothing back in Gaspar Noe’s “Love,” but it’s the ever-provocative writer-director who exposes the most in his sexually explicit, semi-autobiographical Cannes scandal-in-the-making, a courageously personal account of an aspiring filmmaker torn between the mother of his child and the one that got away. The helmer of such transgressive pics as “Irreversible” and “Enter the Void,” Noe resolved to make a relationship movie that was honest about human sexuality, and though the stereoscopic 3D result thrusts plenty of the old bump-and-grind in audiences’ faces, it would be disingenuous to pretend that other directors haven’t gotten there first — and to more revealing effect. Still, you’ve gotta hand it to Noe for leaving no taboo unturned, and for putting so much of himself into a film that’s bound to leave titillation seekers resenting its creator during the long stretches of wallowing introspection between climaxes.
Given the escalating ambition of Noe’s oeuvre and the pornographic promo materials teased in advance of the pic’s Cannes premiere, who would have thought that “Love” would ultimately prove to be Noe’s tamest film? Like last year’s “Nymphomaniac,” this shocker is bound to test tolerance levels in every market it enters, further eroding the lingering Puritanism that exists toward onscreen depictions of passion. And yet, explicit (and evidently unsimulated) content aside, “Love” boasts a relatively soft core. Rather than coyly sidestepping the physical expression of its titular emotion, as so many films do, this one daringly explores the emotional foundation of coital acts, thereby fulfilling the lead character’s ambition of making “a movie that truly depicts sentimental sexuality.”
Whereas more than a century’s worth of cinematic romances have delayed onscreen couples’ chance to consummate their attraction — whether via innocent kiss on the cheek or vigorous fireside sex atop a bearskin rug — Noe defuses the suspense by opening with American film buff Murphy (Karl Glusman) and aspiring French artist Electra (Aomi Muyock) manipulating one another in bed. Using only their hands, the naked couple tease each other to completion in a scene we’re meant to interpret as clear evidence of their sexual compatibility. Strange, then, that the very next scene shows Murphy waking up beside a completely different woman, blonde-haired Omi (Klara Kristin), while his son cries in the other room.
It is New Year’s Day in Paris, a time to re-evaluate one’s life and priorities, and a voicemail from Electra’s worried mother suggests that her daughter may have committed suicide. Two years have passed since Electra found the nerve to dump Murphy (whose eponymous law, emblazoned in big block letters across a red screen, dictates, “If anything can go wrong, it will”). More aggressively fragmented than Noe’s notorious chronology-flipping “Irreversible,” yet far calmer in terms of Steadicam-style lensing, “Love” builds to a comparable fantasy of how things might have turned out differently.
But first, it has to establish how the relationship with Electra unraveled, leaping back in time to show Murphy cheating on her with Omi. The condom breaks (the camera helpfully reveals Glusman’s still-tumescent member for the benefit of those upon whom the concept is lost), and a mere jump cut later, Omi is breaking the ominous news that she’s with child. Murphy takes the information badly, though it’s much harder on Electra, whom Noe clearly adores, mistaking her sex appeal for sufficient cause that audiences might love her, too.
At best, Electra becomes an object of lust, betrayed by the very neighbor she suggested that they invite to a threesome. Whereas the one-on-one sex pairs the missionary position with old-fashioned romantic music, the hot-and-heavy session between Murphy, Electra and Omi inspires electric guitars and more adventurous framing: Horizontally entwined, the three lovers fill the widescreen frame, enjoying porn-star sex without the tacky XXX cliches. Noe shoots from above, maintaining an elegant distance, while sparing audiences the garish angles and gratuitous closeups of so-called “adult” fare. This menage a trois may not be “love,” but it’s something beautiful in Noe’s eyes — an explicit marathon, not unlike the sexual initiation scene in “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” but less incongruous with the highly stylized dramatic footage that surrounds it.
For this one blissful scene, Murphy manages to enjoy both women, but from then on, he must cope with the consequences of infidelity. Although the sequence of flashbacks is a jumble, Noe has carefully coordinated and timed how they will unspool in the film, locking himself into a certain pace (overlong at 135 minutes), the way Alejandro G. Inarritu did with “Birdman.” Here, instead of appearing seamless, the shots have been choreographed in such a way that Murphy’s position within the frame remains constant across the cuts — many of which work more like eye-blinks, snapping to black for a split-second either within or between the given shots.
In “Enter the Void,” Noe experimented with direct subjectivity, peering through the characters’ eyes. Here, he tends to stare at Murphy head-on, or else to study the back of his head, counting on 3D to amplify our sense of identification. The trouble is, we don’t actually share Murphy’s feelings. Though undeniably endowed with other assets, Glusman is not a good actor, nor a particularly compelling screen presence — and Muyock even less so (in some scenes, it’s actually hard to distinguish between Electra and two other brunettes Murphy shags along the way).
An American in Paris, Murphy is constantly surrounded by heavy accents, whose difficulties with English impede their line readings, which will surely inspire snarky types to dismiss the acting as being no better than porn performances — and yet, this is not pornography. Noe didn’t set out to arouse; rather, he intends to stress how sex is a vital aspect of the way humans connect (joining a crusade to demystify sex onscreen by such artists as Andy Warhol, Lars von Trier, Catherine Breillat and John Cameron Mitchell). Neuter these scenes of their prurient function, however, and they’re no more engaging than watching someone play a videogame.
By focusing on the relatively banal rift between Murphy and Electra, Noe risks making the sex boring — which might explain why he resorts to gimmick shots (including a 3D-enhanced view of that in-utero eruption seen in “Enter the Void”) and a dark descent into sexual experimentation. Though it’s not clear where in their relationship these boundary-challenging encounters occur, Murphy finds himself exploring a Paris swingers club (somewhere between “Eyes Wide Shut” orgy and a Francis Bacon painting) and a second threesome, this time with a transsexual prostitute — both lighter versions of encounters that came drenched in homophobia in “Irreversible.”
Whereas Noe over-amplified his own sex- and violence-related fantasies in his three previous features (beginning with the bloody “I Stand Alone”), here, the helmer strips away such hyperbole to reveal his naked soul. Barely disguised beneath a bad wig and anagrammatic pseudonym (Aron Pages), Noe appears as his own rival, a sleazy Paris art dealer named “Noe” (while Wild Bunch patron Vincent Maraval gamely plays a kinky cop who aptly admits, “I like watching”). Meanwhile, Murphy has a way of spouting the pic’s own intentions, satirically doing so in the most unsophisticated way, surrounded by posters for the most controversial films in the history of cinema — “Salo,” “The Birth of a Nation,” “Taxi Driver” — from an apartment lit like the hotel room in “Vertigo” where Jimmy Stewart fetishistically re-creates Kim Novak in the image of the woman who couldn’t save.
With overt references to past drug use, “Love” clearly functions as a sincere mea culpa to lover(s) Noe may have wronged along the way. Though extremely precise in its every composition, it feels less Kubrickian than the director’s other work. Surprisingly, Noe seems to be channeling Terrence Malick for a change, offering up an atheistic (and X-rated) twist on “To the Wonder,” with its hovering camera, gobbledygooky narration and melancholy choice between two women, neither of whom he deserves.