[This review contains descriptions of graphic sexual acts.]
CANNES – The first shot of Gaspar Noé”s new drama “Love” lets you know exactly what you”ve gotten yourself into. Murphy (Karl Glusman) and Electra (Aomi Muyock) are naked on a bed. She is giving him a hand job while he fingers her. The camera does not move. There is no cut to another shot. There is no music. And then, in what will be a common occurrence, Murphy ejaculates in Electra”s hand. Noé has given you ample warning of what”s ahead. This film will not simulate sex. The intercourse will be real and it will dominate the proceedings.
After this initial scene the film jumps two years later and the actual narrative begins. Murphy, an American film student living in Paris, awakens in bed with his current companion, Omi (Klara Kristin). Their young son is crying and Murphy goes to try and calm him down. A voice over immediately telegraphs how miserable his life is, declaring, “This place is a cage.” His day is quickly interrupted by a voicemail from Elektra”s mother who pleads with him for help. Her daughter has not been in heard from in two months and she fears suicide. Murphy becomes despondent over the love of his life's potential fate and we begin to flashback to the highs and lows of their relationship.
In his director”s statement, Noé, who is best known for 2003's “Irreversible” and 2009's “Enter the Void,” says he wanted “to film the organic dimension of love.” In layman”s terms, that constitutes characters engaging in graphic sex that has rarely if ever been seen in a “legitimate” film. What begins to hinder his proposition is that the film contains so many sex scenes that the cumulative effect is numbing. You almost tune it all out. If Noé had lived by the “less is more” philosophy, his argument would be more impactful overall. Moreover, how he films many of these sequences doesn't help, either.
One of the first extended sex scenes is between Murphy, Electra and Omni. Murphy and Electra have seduced Omi, their new neighbor, to fulfill Electra”s biggest fantasy (this is also where they discover Omi is only 16, to which Murphy exclaims, “I love Europe”). Surprisingly, the three-way is shot from one angle with almost no cuts. The song that plays over it includes a very long guitar solo that you”d expect from a porno made in the 1970s. In this particular instance, providing the audience a simple observational perspective that any webcam can depict makes it increasingly feel as though Noé is taking advantage of his actors instead of allowing them to tell his story. And while it takes a long while to come to the surface amongst the almost constant sex, there actually is a real story Noé wants to tell.
Frankly, Murphy and Electra are not that special. They are just another dysfunctional couple whose relationship is full of jealousy and infidelity (mostly on his part). Neither of them ever discuss having an open relationship, but Murphy”s unspoken presumption is the underlying cause for its eventual failure. As Noé slowly pulls back on the barrage of sex scenes we do begin to see how these lovers fell for each other, however. Shockingly, there are actual sequences in the movie where all the characters do is walk through the streets of Paris talking to each other about life, their hopes and their dreams. There is also a rare moment or two where Noé is able to use the sex to seed the couple”s relationship.
One particular example finds the couple, at the behest of Electra, experimenting by hooking up with a transsexual. Murphy”s discomfort with the taboo encounter leads him to lovingly ask Electra to keep it a secret. It”s one of the few times in the film where the pair seem truly in love as opposed to playing being in love. It”s also worth noting this is one of the few times Noé insinuates the sexual acts that take place rather than completely revealing them. The film doesn”t have enough of these moments.
After the sex is over, Noé often lets the camera lazily gaze upon its subjects in the afterglow. His willingness to display the male form completely nude so intimately may seem minor compared to the sexual acts we”ve seen Murphy”s private parts engage in, but if “Love” cracks open the door for more sexual expression on screen in any way, it will likely be in this context. And, yes, that's a positive.
It goes without saying that there are few well-known actors who would be willing to participate in a project such as this, even if it meant working with a renowned filmmaker such as Noé. The three main leads, all unknowns, may look back upon this project a decade from now and marvel at how brave they were to take it on. Noé is lucky they are as good as they are.
Sometimes Glusman, who has a supporting role in Roland Emmerich”s upcoming drama “Stonewall,” is very good conveying a “bro” who thinks he's more talented and smart than he really is. Other times it appears as though he is a relatively inexperienced actor plucked off a generic Hollywood casting call just trying too hard.
Electra is feisty and passionate, but Muyock”s natural charisma brings her more to life than Noé”s screenplay ever does.
As for Omi, she becomes such a peripheral character that Kristin isn”t able to make much of an impression with her. Considering the film”s primary focus, that”s likely what Noé had in mind. Providing her a little more depth would have made Murphy”s present day obsession with Electra that much more interesting, though.
But “Love” may not be as erotic as many expect. The gratuitous sex may eventually start to bore many viewers. Some may even take off their 3D glasses because they simply aren't necessary. Yet, for all its faults, “Love” is a film that somehow still resonates. And it”s not because Noé is pushing the boundaries of human sexual expression in cinema. On the surface, that aspect of the film feels superfluous. No, somehow there is one sliver of genuine intimacy that appears through all of the noise and distraction, a sliver of true intimacy that is rarely seen in narrative film. And after 2 hours and 10 minutes, that may be enough to justify the entire experience.
“Love” has secured distribution in the United States, but it”s unclear when it will be released in theaters.