Stanley Kubrick once mused on the idea of a sexually explicit film made with beautiful actors and expensive equipment. Terry Southern wrote this up as a screenplay and a novel (Blue Movie) but it was never filmed. Now the Argentinian director Gaspar Noé has married high production values with unsimulated sex in the way Kubrick envisaged. Love (18, dir. Gaspar Noé) is shot in 3D, a format purpose-built for poking or dangling bits and bobs in cinemagoers’ faces. Noé has combined the spectacular and the repellent in previous films such as the revenge drama Irréversible. His fourth feature, Love, is one in the eye – often literally – for those who doubted he could make a work of pure or peaceful intent.
Other directors (Michael Winterbottom in 9 Songs, John Cameron Mitchell in Shortbus) have dragged real sex away from the realm of porn, though never at quite this . . . well, length. Noé pieces together a love affair and its meltdown using sex scenes as his main storytelling tool. Talking of tools, Murphy (Karl Glusman) is prone not only to whip his own out at the drop of a dress, but to act like one, too. “I’m just a dick,” he says during one of his interior monologues. “And a dick has no brain. It has only one purpose. To fuck. And I’m only good at one thing. Fucking things up.”
It isn’t the sex in Love that is shocking, it’s the dialogue. You never know what is going to come out of the actors’ mouths. Or go into them, for that matter.
Murphy lives with his partner, Omi (Klara Kristin), and their son, but is preoccupied by memories of an earlier relationship with Electra (Aomi Muyock). Jump-cuts show how these reminiscences overpower the present. In the long opening scene, the couple’s bodies form a human pretzel as they masturbate one another. The next thing we know, Murphy is in bed next to Omi. The production design doesn’t differentiate between time frames. Either Noé is very fond of orange and avocado, or he got a good deal on a batch of Dulux. The lighting, predominantly warm and amber, switches to scarlet or pea-green during infidelity or distress.
There is also a correlation between the story and the kinds of sex shown. 9 Songs made the mistake of equating a woman’s use of a vibrator with the rejection of her partner, as though a toy could have no use other than as a replacement for a man. Love, though not as censorious, usually interprets any sex that is not in the missionary position as an expression of rage. If correct, it’s a theory that would make the Kama Sutra a very angry book indeed.
Many of the criticisms that could be levelled at Love can just as easily be neutralised by its loyalty to Murphy’s point of view. He is a film student who dreams of making a movie that depicts sentimental sexuality – the way sex feels between people who are in love. He talks a good film but we see no evidence of his work. The reason for this, it soon becomes clear, is that Love is the film he is talking about.
In the same way as the narrative of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation starts to resemble the screenplay that the main character is writing, so Love adheres to the contours of Murphy’s dream project. It is ludicrous that a film which prides itself on explicitness becomes coy when he can’t sustain an erection (the only time that the camera shoots him from the waist up) or cuts away from a sexual encounter of which he is ashamed. But if Love is a manifestation of the film Murphy has in his head, then it makes sense that he would leave his own bad takes on the cutting-room floor.
The impression of being trapped inside a movie taking place in one man’s head is only amplified by the abundance of in-jokes. Murphy hides his drugs inside a VHS copy of Noé’s 1998 debut feature film, Seul contre tous, and names his son Gaspar. He also assaults a gallery owner called Noé. (Guess which controversial Argentinian director plays that part?)
Although Love features several happy endings and several climaxes, none of which occur at the conclusion of the film, it insists on an emotional foundation to its sex scenes that would be disastrous in pornography. Nothing would undermine a porn flick more quickly than worrying about whether those college girls got their own rooms so they didn’t have to share a bed for the rest of term, or if that handyman ever got round to fixing the broken boiler.
This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror