Love (Gaspar Noe, France 2015). Written and directed by Gaspar Noe/ Cinematography by Benoit Debie / Edited by Denis Bedlow and Gaspar Noe / Music supervision by Pascal Mayer with music by Lawrence Schultz and John Carpenter. Starring Karl Glusman, Aomi Muycock, Klara Kristin, Isabelle Nicou, Gaspar Noe.
Some films are plain hard work, and Gaspar Noe’s grim, uncompromising 3D Love (2015) is one of them. The storytelling is accomplished and the filmmaking of a rare intensity, purveying a formidable (if unintended) saga of sexual addiction. Regrettably, we are let down by a platitudinous script, questionable acting, and a half-baked philosophy which has no moral compass worth speaking of to anchor the meaning of the unrelenting scenes of blatant, ultimately tedious sexual activity. For all its strengths, who would want to watch this film more than once (pace Peter Bradshaw)?
Murphy (Karl Glusman) is a young American attending film school in Paris where he meets Electra (Aomi Muycock), a dark beauty who becomes the love of his life. The couple embark on a wild romance, experimenting widely with sex, inviting from an adjoining flat, a young, blonde sixteen-year-old girl, Omi (Klara Kristin), to make up a threesome. When Electra is away one weekend, Murphy and Omi make love and she becomes pregnant. The film begins two years after Murphy and Electra have met; Murphy and Omi have a child and there is another on the way. Electra’s mother, Nora (Isabelle Nicou), rings up Murphy, worried about her daughter’s prolonged absence and suicidal tendencies; throughout the course of a day, a disintegrating Murphy recalls his meeting with Electra and memories of his affair with her, and comes to a desolate realisation.
An outstanding virtue of Love is its compelling and ingenious narrative structure, in which the story of Murphy and Electra is told backwards, arriving at their tender first meeting at the end (an encounter which recalls that, in Vienna, of the lovers in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise  – but without the severe time constraint and, certainly, without the breadth and depth of dialogue). Murphy’s memories of his developing relationship with Electra are suffused with full-blooded sexual flashbacks, and the remarkable intensity of the affair and the ingenuity of its unfolding story create a charge which is all the more bleak and emotionally eviscerating because of Murphy’s realisation of what he has lost.
The story also gains considerable power from Murphy’s infantile wildness, he a man at the stern beck and call of his feelings, and distressingly addicted to sex. Suffused with the dark reds of a velvety sensuality, the colour palette of the film captures perfectly the enveloping, swaddling world of countless sexual encounters. Composed as artworks, the beauty of the lovers’ gleaming, intertwined bodies are repeatedly lingered over, whilst scenes in clubs, brothels and at a sex party are lit luridly and stroboscopically, the music grinding and pulsing. (Noe’s sex party follows a pedigree, from the orgiastic glimpses in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut , to the luridity of the near-apocalyptic brothel scene in Steve McQueen’s Shame  and a remarkably similar sequence in Francois Ozon’s Le temps qui reste .)* The masterly claustrophobia of the closely shot scenes and the imagery of the film are also remarkable, with a full-screen shot of a penis entering a vagina, seen from inside the woman’s body (a reverse of the outsize penetration fantasy in Giger’s Erotomechanics). Worthy of a Leo Carax construct, a juxtaposed stroboscopic cone of glittering, concentric circles with a bright light at its heart seems to capture in a single image the febrile sexual obsession that drives Murphy and will not leave him be. The downward shot of an ejaculating penis, the sperm from which threatens to spatter the camera lens (a bizarre near-breaking of the fourth wall) and the unusual blinking of Noe’s camera intensify the voyeuristic sense, adding to the overwhelming impression of sexual thraldom, and epitomise the imprisoning and destructive nature of the love of Murphy and Electra.
The film has one of the most impressive and varied soundtracks of the year, a huge compendium of often grungy, obsessive tracks ranging from the ‘sixties dark-art purveyor, Charles Manson accomplice Bobby Beausoleil, to the elegance of Bach’s Aria from the Goldberg Variations (this use of Bach’s ‘Aria’ as a foil to carnality is another reminiscence of Shame). Noe knows how to create a cinema of excess with no concessions to an obfuscating propriety. Whether one is sympathetic to the characters is another matter. I found myself close to all of them, who have trapped one another so securely that escape seems impossible (like the sympathetic response, in my view, also secured effortlessly for Brandon in Shame). Emblazoned in a tacky tabloid credit, is Love an ironic title, or the expression of the realization that love, once squandered, is unrecoverable?
On the down side, Love has a script that is so wooden and platitudinous that one wonders whether this was deliberate. Noe put the two female leads into their first film, and met Karl Glusman through a friend. The inexperience shows, the combination of dubious acting and a miscalculated script a double whammy. Only Glusman’s lost-little-boy look works (although it counts for a lot), although Muycock’s snarling rages are terrifying, embodying the commonplace simulacrum of intense passion and uncontrolled hate. Philosophically, the script is awful, a hodge-podge of snippets of conversation (‘I’m pro-life’), and attacks on Murphy, who is accused of having no conception of the joys of sex, instead being full of aggressive American values. These latter indictments come from rather unappetising characters, including an off-duty policeman with a penchant for group sex, and Electra’s old boyfriend, a brittle gallery owner with a preposterous toupee, played by Noe himself (more underpowered acting), who, in proclaiming against the prudery of Murphy, and urging that sex is guilt-free, is hardly to be trusted philosophically (one is put in mind of the odious narcissistic justification of unbridled sex by Devereaux in Abel Ferrara’s highly moralistic Welcome to New York ).
Murphy truly wants to make a film about blood, sweat and sperm, and perhaps this is what Noe tries to do, too. Unfortunately, Love lacks any moral compass to speak of which would allow the characters to reflect on their bodily urges and their propensity for destruction (as addicts, from time to time, are wont to do). A moral viewpoint does not preclude the explicitness of sexual exploration that Noe achieves, but it is necessary to give the sex meaning. Steve McQueen achieves a moral dimension effortlessly in Shame through Brandon’s occasionally flickering consciousness of his considerable shortcomings, and Ferrara gets it right through the mere depiction of the disastrous consequences of gross narcissistic entitlement.
As the film progressed, my heart began to sink as yet another sex scene came along. Some of the scenes – especially the opening sequence – seem formal, joyless and muted, as if it were not permissible to let passion off the leash (and Murphy kept his boxers on a little too often!); the compulsion to thrust sex in the viewer’s face ultimately became tedious. Despite its explicitness, the sex is neither lascivious and pornographic (that is to say, conceived for the purposes of masturbation) nor overly illuminating of the meaning of the story, other than to illustrate (and this was probably unintended) the distress of sexual obsession. One only has to recall Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adele – Chapitres 1 et 2 (2013) which uses explicit sex relatively sparingly, and without any leaning towards pornography, to illustrate the distressing cooling of passion, his actresses, to boot, of the highest quality; and, if it comes to obsession, the more accurate and moving depiction, in Shame, of the sexual addict, without the burden of narcissistic notions of guilt-free sex, seems much nearer the mark.
*In Ozon’s Le temps qui reste, an extract from Charpentier’s Messe accompanies Romain’s visit to a gay club, where he witnesses an elaborate sexual encounter the grotesqueness of which is transformed into something hieratic and noble by the devotional music. One must think that of a similar passage in Steve McQueen’s Shame, transformed by using music by Bach to accompany Brandon’s descent into the bowels of a gay club – the red hell of his sexual addiction – possibly a reminiscence of Ozon’s film.
Love does not involve a flight from intimacy as many films about sexual obsession do, supremely, Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge (1971), Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000), Shame, and Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie (2013).