Trailing poster-fuelled controversy and its French director’s reputation as an arch provocateur, Gaspar Noé’s NSFW 3D erotica Love (2015) was the most midnight of midnight movies at Cannes this year. The film tells the tale of a love affair played out by the only two twentysomethings in the western hemisphere without tattoos. Electra (Aomi Muyock) is a Parisian artist, who’s sometimes heavy-handed with the ol’ recreationals. Murphy (Karl Glusman) is the American film student who pontificates unconvincingly about what Noé thinks about cinema and falls desperately for Electra. Despite his ardour, the boy is flesh and blood and so tends to stray and is undone by man’s old foe – pregnancy.
Neighbour Omi (Klara Kristin) is the lucky gal to be lumbered with Murphy’s offspring. The film starts following an explicit scene of mutual masturbation. That this should be one of the recurring sex acts in a film which isn’t exactly a Kama Sutra of variety hints that it’s Noé’s sly admission of what his overall project is really about. After this prelude, we are brought to present. Murphy lives with Omi and his baby son, Gaspar. His voiceover informs us that he hates his wife with a venom that appears unwarranted. On his phone he finds messages from Electra’s mother who is trying to find her daughter. Murphy leaps into action and takes opium, spending the rest of the proceedings in a strange fugue state.
As with Irreversible (2002) and Enter the Void (2010), Noé has made a stylish film entirely his own, with his fixed camera keeping Murphy and Electra for the most part dead-centre. The 3D is largely a gimmick, failing to suggest intimacy and involvement, but used to hilarious if predictable effect when it comes to a penis doing what penises often will. The colours are gorgeous and the sex is filmed with an erotic abandon that’s intermittently sexy, usually from above. Murphy’s apartment is decorated with film posters Noé put up and the influences of Kubrick and Bertolucci among others throbs heavily throughout the drama. The problem is with this ‘drama’, of which there is little. With Murphy revealed to be something of a misogynistic arsehole in the first five minutes, his arc from joyful boyfriend to duplicitous, jealous shit isn’t exactly a shocker. And Electra is that age-old stereotype of a wild woman of sexual appetite who refuses to be tamed. Why does her libido have to have a tragic resolution? In fact, for all the fuss that will be kicked up about the breaking of boundaries, Love is consciously not a transgressive work and relies on some terribly shop-worn clichés.
The couple try a threesome with Omi, visit a swingers sex club and experiment with a transsexual prostitute, who serves (sadly) as a comic sideshow. At one point, Murphy and Electra visit a porn shop and gasp at the various perversions on display. Meanwhile, their own proclivities are persistent but not particularly new or weird. Inspired partly as a more optimistic answer to Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013), Noé goes light on his violence. The film fails to become the Before Sunrise (1995) – with hardcore sex – it appears to aspire to be. The acting is flat, the characters flatter and, in Murphy’s case, thoroughly unlikeable. As for the fornication, we’re hopefully not going to go through the old “Is it porn or is it art?” debate (answer: it’s both). If Freud was right that everything is about sex, then the question always comes back to “Okay, then what is sex about?” Ultimately, though an entertaining-enough stab at a new kind of orgiastic extravaganza, Noé’s Love is so mired in its own hang-ups and conservative gender views that it never gets past the first stroke.