There are two very understandable reasons why people hate Gaspar Noé’s films: He’s a pompous tool, and his movies are often little more than showy provocations filled with vapid ciphers. If anything, Love finds the 51-year-old director doubling down on his self-appointed enfant terrible persona, and the usual objections still apply.
Yes, the director responsible for Irreversible and Enter the Void has made a 3D sex film, surely the most explicit movie to hit theaters this year. The sex is often graphic (and most of it is unsimulated), but Noé insisted in a recent New York profile that “the movie is mostly arousing on a sentimental level.” (He also is taken to making such sweeping claims as “There’s nothing like erotic cinema anymore ... maybe it’s better to clean [horny teenagers’] eyes with images that are closer to life.”) For him, Love isn’t just about pushing the boundaries of sexual content in non-pornographic cinema; it’s also about telling a tragic love story that’s very personal. As always, he’s full of it. And yet, Love is a powerful experience, which doesn’t mean it’s consistently a great film. (In fact, parts of it are outright terrible.) But even if his doomed central character is a shallow jerk, Noé makes a compelling case that even shallow jerks get their hearts broken.
Love operates mostly in flashback, starting off with an extended, wordless opening in which we see lovers Murphy (Karl Glusman) and Electra (Aomi Muyock) in bed pleasuring each other, ending with Murphy’s erect penis ejaculating. From there, we cut to the central framing device: It’s January 1, and Murphy is in the present, living with another lover, Omi (Klara Kristin), and their young son. Murphy is resentful of Omi and terrified of the hell that his life has become. (We know all this because we hear Murphy’s inner monologue, which is an endless lament of morose, charmless twentysomething angst.) Murphy and Electra broke up because he cheated on her with Omi, getting her pregnant in the process. And this morning, Murphy learns through a voicemail from Electra’s mother that his ex has disappeared, and possibly committed suicide.
The rest of the film is a circling back to show how Murphy and Electra’s once-perfect relationship hit the skids. And what we figure out pretty quickly is that the blame belongs entirely on him. An American living in Paris, he attends film school and likes to spew obnoxious declarations about cinema, such as that he’s only interested in making movies that have semen and blood—because, y’know, it’s so real. Whether or not you conflate Murphy with Noé himself will depend mostly on how much you hate either of them: It’s awfully easy to connect the dots between these two cocky loudmouths. (And Noé doesn’t shy away from the comparisons: Both cite 2001: A Space Odyssey as their favorite film, and Murphy’s baby son is named Gaspar.)
Movies are filled with “challenging” and “unsympathetic” main characters—protagonists who provoke an audience simply by being stubbornly unlikable, even loathsome. Murphy is a different sort of heel: He’s an ass without much capacity for self-reflection. And if Noé is fashioning the character after himself, Love feels like an apology, but also an acknowledgment of just how melodramatic young love can be. Ever since the film opened in Cannes, some of its harshest critics seem to think that we’re supposed to take Murphy’s navel-gazing, self-inflicted misery seriously, faulting Love for being so earnest. (With a title like that, how else are we supposed to read the movie?) But having seen Love twice now, I’d argue that Noé’s feelings are more complicated than that.
Ultimately, this is a melancholy movie about losing the one person who might have been perfect for you. (“I cried during editing,” Noé told New York about putting together Love. “It was so sad.”) But it’s also about the sadness of growing out of an age when love feels that life-or-death urgent. Turns out, Noé’s comment about Love being “mostly arousing on a sentimental level” isn’t just pretentious claptrap: It’s the key to understanding his intentions. Yes, Murphy is an immature twit, but he’s also still young enough to feel things on a deep level. The tragedy isn’t just that he loses Electra, but that by reluctantly gaining a family, he loses a fragile, exciting time of life he was too dumb to savor.
This can be hard to pick up on when, admittedly, so much of Love is devoted to Noé indulging his many Noé-isms. We have cumshots that fly right into our face thanks to the 3D. We have beautifully composed scenes courtesy of Noé’s longtime cinematographer Benoît Debie. The score touches on everything from classical to Death in Vegas to themes from John Carpenter’s movies. And Love always exudes a humorless air of self-importance that can be as suffocating as the relationship/fatherhood prison in which Murphy finds himself.
Oddly, though, his tics don’t bother me too badly, mostly because I think he uses them to get somewhere genuine. Not quite the wall-to-wall sex-a-thon some of its hype might suggest, Love is more accurately a honest look at how a couple’s sex life feeds into and reflects their emotional development. A painter who’s not without her own faults, Electra is kept a bit at a distance—she’s the idealized lover, with all the awe and terror that implies—and so we really only understand their attraction by seeing them in bed together. And the sex is plenty erotic, while remaining in the realm of the realistic, demystified but also pretty potent.
Because Murphy and Electra are both young, they’re not just falling in love, but also trying to figure out themselves: their creative aspirations, their place in the adult world, the people they want to be. Weirdly, I thought a lot about Roger Ebert’s assessment of Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, another movie about a man looking back at the wreckage of a failed relationship: “His girls tend to reflect the stages he’s going through. ... His only trouble is that women are people, not stages.” That’s part of Murphy’s trouble, too: He’s such an insecure, angry, directionless young man—it’s telling that we never actually see him make a film—that we can imagine that part of his attraction to Electra is simply that she buys the persona he’s selling.
Love pinpoints a crucial dilemma about young love, giving us passionate, heedless characters who aren’t old enough to have attained the life experience they need to take advantage of the exuberant love affair that’s fallen into their laps. That’s why Noé’s mostly nonprofessional cast (who sometimes flounder around in their improvised dialogue) aren’t the deal-breaking hindrance they risk being: After all, his movie is about unformed proto-humans stumbling toward maturity.
Many will not see the depths here that I do. That’s entirely Noé’s fault: With his brash manner and shock-value cinema, he actively antagonizes audiences, leading them to recoil from or outright reject his theatrics. This is the crucial similarity between him and Murphy, and why most will want nothing to do with either of them. But the intensity of the director’s ideas—and the faith he has in them—is amazing to witness. He doesn’t have to convince me that Murphy’s life is a tragedy—he just has to convince me that he thinks Murphy’s life is a tragedy. I wouldn’t call it love, but I do confess to harboring a strange admiration for the guy.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.