Gaspar Noé is the most polarizing film director currently in the game. He makes uncommonly challenging and profane works. For more than a decade, I have passionately defended Noé’s films not only as art, but great art at that. I understand Noé’s intention, and, while extreme, I find value in it. His first feature, I Stand Alone, climaxes with a massive title card warning the audience that they have 30 seconds to leave the theater. When the title disappears, Noé spends the remainder of his film justifying that warning. Bad things happen in I Stand Alone. Horrible, brutal things. But look closer. Did they happen the way the main character perceived them?
Noé’s Enter the Void is a psychosexual mind fuck that words cannot encapsulate. Noé sought to make a film that portrays what it is really like to trip on hallucinogenic drugs. No matter your personal degree of experience with psychotropic substances, if you’ve seen Enter the Void, you know that, for better or worse, Noé’s intention was again fully realized.
And now we have Love, Gaspar Noé’s big, bold, beautiful new film about the physical joys and emotional cruelties of young love. The film features real acts of (consensual, modest, and truthful) sex, stunning 3D cinematography, a flawless soundtrack, and a trio of fearless performances.
Murphy (Karl Glusman) wakes up on the first day of a new year to the sound of his cell phone ringing. He ignores the call. It’s early. He’s still high from whatever he took the night before. He walks to his infant son’s room, plays with him for a bit, heads back to bed. Once in his bedroom, the mother of his child, Omi (Klara Kristin), asks him who called. It was the mother of Murphy’s ex-girlfriend, Electra (Aomi Muyock). Electra’s mother is worried; she hasn’t spoken to her daughter in months. Murphy contemplates what to do, as he hasn’t heard from Electra in far longer. As Murphy thinks, Love jumps back in time to give us glimpses of Murphy and Electra together.
Noé presents this relationship void of the artifice that accompanies most romantic films. There is partying, drugs, afternoons alone, nights with friends; and yes, there is sex. A lot of sex? For a movie, sure, but for a real life love affair full of youth and energy and passion? Not really. The difference, of course, is that most of the sex in Love is real, meaning that the actors were actually going for it on camera. Hearing this fact about the film, many have written Love off as pornography without having actually seen it. Love is not porn, because, as banal as this may sound, it isn’t a film about sex, but rather, love. Sex is a part of Love, sure, but there’s a lot more at play here, just as there is in real life relationships.
There are many ingredients to a relationship – happiness, sadness, jealousy, fear, betrayal, joy, sex – and in Love, Noé depicts them all with equal verve. The arguments Murphy and Electra have are so devastatingly painful, because they feel so real. While the tender moments between them are earnest and heartwarming. There’s a scene where Murphy sits on his windowsill and reads from a small book, Electra’s head rested comfortably in his lap. Watching this, I realized that Murphy and Electra were just as happy here as they are in the bedroom. That’s love when you’re young and new and don’t know and don’t care. Truly, Love is one of the best, most unflinching encapsulations of love that I’ve ever seen.
Many things help with this. Chiefly, the film’s memory-like editing style. Even though scenes are presented out of order, Love is never hard to keep track of. Murphy remembers Electra the way you might remember your first true love, with the bad mixed with the good, sometimes at the blink of an eye. (Ingeniously, frequent flashes of black appear in Love as if Murphy is blinking away a memory, welcoming a new one, or connecting two together.) The movie really feels like you’re in Murphy’s head.
The trio of central performances are a marvel of naturalism. I never once saw Glusman, Muyock and Kristin “act” in Love, which is bound to throw people off. People expect acting in movies. Big speeches and perfect deliveries. The actors in Love (all virtual unknowns, though Glusman has a few credits to his name) talk how real people talk, messy patterns and all. And the film’s eclectic soundtrack consistently punctuates the characters’ intentions. From Pink Floyd to Bach, Erik Satie to Riz Ortolani, John Frusciante to John Carpenter, Love’s soundtrack is as random as it is complete.
In no uncertain terms, Love executes the most effective use of 3D ever realized for a film. As Noé became interested in 3D photography, he discovered that the more the camera moved, the more nauseating the picture appeared. And, considering most 3D movies fit into the action genre, we’ve never seen a 3D film as still as Love. Every composition in Love is captured through a static lens, or one moving gracefully on a Steadicam. And what fine compositions they are. The film was shot by master cinematographer Benoît Debie (Irreversible, Enter the Void, Spring Breakers), and Love is surely his crowning achievement. There’s a scene in Love where Murphy and Electra get into a fight in a nightclub. The camera is setup in a way that the laser lights in the club break into the frame, blocking our vision as they would in real life. During the scene, I found myself darting my head around, trying to get a better look at the actors. And then it hit me. I slid my 3D glasses off, and there were the lasers, resting gently on the 2D movie screen. I put the glasses back on, and the lasers went back to clouding my line of sight. How profound.
Because Love is a film that will always be best known for sex, I will conclude my analysis by describing two such scenes. One love scene is scored to Funkadelic’s 10 minute opus, “Maggot Brain,” and it is one of the sexiest sequences ever shot. It’s likely to get anyone shifting in their seat. It’s also stunning in its beauty, which adds to its power. Another scene is scored to Brian Eno’s masterful “Always Returning,” and that’s the one that sent me over. Tears slowly formed in my eyes not because the scene was sexy, but because it was so goddamn cinematic. Getting emotional while watching a perfectly pleasurable love scene… that’s never happened to me in a movie before. And now I’m left wondering if it ever will again. A+