There are some pretty glaring flaws, but this brazenly ambitious, imperfect film is unlike anything else you'll see this year.
By now it should be clear that anybody going into a Gaspar Noé movie expecting nuanced acting, fully realised characters and realistic, multi-layered dialogue is going to be disappointed. For Noé, thematic focal points and formal conceits take precedence over traditional notions of dramaturgy. Whether he’s meditating on the politics of the rape-revenge sub-genre (Irreversible), Buddhist conceptions of the afterlife (Enter the Void), or audience identification with antiheroes (I Stand Alone), the French provocateur prefers to organise his films around broad philosophical concepts rather than character-driven, cause-and-effect narratives, which has the side effect of draining his central players of interiority and turning them into empty stand-ins for ideas.
For many critics, this is Noé’s damning flaw, but for those willing to take his movies on their own terms, he reveals himself to be one of modern cinema’s true originals; he may sometimes skirt the ludicrous and the asinine, but at least every shot is based in a genuinely singular vision about how movies should be made and consumed.
I’d hesitate to refer to a film in which there’s a close-up of a dick ejaculating straight into the lens and nearly every room contains a prominently displayed classic movie poster as “mature”, but it does represent a welcome change of tenor for Noé following the assaultive brutalism of his work thus far. What’s surprising about Love isn’t just it’s meditative pace and its restrained aesthetic but it’s markedly more sympathetic view of life.
This is evidenced from the very first scene: a several-minute-long, slow track of Murphy as he tracks his apartment, mostly framed from the torso-up, surrounded on all sides by spare white domestic space. I can’t recall seeing a more plainly set-up location in a Noé movie. Murphy gets out of bed, wakes his baby son Gaspar (!), then carries him back into the bedroom, where he hands him to his wife, all the while his stoic, whispery voice-over clues us into his anxieties regarding his stifling suburban life. Murphy checks his voicemail to find that his ex-girlfriend Electra has been missing for some time and her mother fears that she’s committed suicide. Murphy is clearly anguished and at this point Noé reveals the first in a handful of aesthetic gambits: in place of conventional cuts, every edit is accompanied with a few seconds of black screen, and when we return to the image we’ve either jumped forward or jumped backwards in time substantially. The next, introduced soon after, is the organization of the unsimulated sex scenes into static medium shots, often filmed from overhead. This at once suggests an omniscient, slightly removed perspective while also placing an emphasis on mutual gratification; they’re not there to scandalize or arouse, but to serve as physical manifestations of abstract thematic concepts.
The structure, though presented to us through flashbacks which jump erratically between time periods, ultimately reveals itself to be quite straightforward: Murphy accidentally made their 17-year-old neighbour Omi pregnant. Electra found out, left him, and started seeing other men, which made Murphy mad with erotic obsession. Most of the dialogue is more concerned with verbalising current emotional states then contextualising them within a backstory or wider psychological complexes. What we know about the characters is stripped to its bare essentials, they register as little more than the sort of interchangeable, screechy, opium-fiend clubbers that have populated all of Noé’s movies since Irreversible.
What does this add up to? Not a portrait of lovers but a portrait of the titular emotion, and how this abstraction expresses itself through the materialist realities of – to quote the film student protagonist himself – “blood, sperm, and tears”. And though the characters may be simplistic, the worldview is not. Noé positions his protagonists as everyman and everywoman figures, not just engaged in a single situation but embodying certain gender politics that have been around for aeons. To put it another way, if Enter the Void was Noé’s goofy riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey (which Noé claims is his favourite film of all time), Love is his goofy riff on Eyes Wide Shut.
Noé is pretty rare in the current cinematic landscape in that he tends to perceive emotions as being first and foremost obscure internal chemical reactions that express themselves physically in their most immediate form, and are only conceptualised after the fact. Murphy – whose subjectivity shapes the film’s content – gradually reveals the undertones of solipsism, homophobia, entitlement and sexism that underpin his worldview; his self-martyring whining serves as a stand-in for the worst aspects of male neurosis. If there’s a pattern that governs his behaviour, it’s that he constantly gets himself into a bad situation out of passivity then, once there, retrospectively blames the women around him. He marries the rigidly pro-lifer Omi out of principle after getting her pregnant, then becomes convinced that she tricked him into it by sabotaging the condom. Worried that their relationship is getting stale, he coerces Electra to go to a sex club recommended to him, then, unexpectedly being enraged at the sight of her being with other men, blames her for agreeing to it. Electra, who Murphy regards as the love of his life, is positioned by him as an idealised and essentially unknowable object of desire; he consistently indulges in self-sabotage as a way of reinforcing her unattainability. The narrative arc, which sees Murphy travel backwards in his memory to reach the point of their idyllic meeting, is essentially equated with a retreat into narcissism.
It’s a portrait of passion as something all-consuming, masochistic and self-destructive, and rather than suggesting that these are the side-products of a toxic relationship, Noé insinuates that these aspects are vital parts of its intensity. It’s not an especially idealistic perspective, but it’s delivered with an empathy that I’ve never seen before in Noé’s filmography. Plus, the decision to conflate Murphy’s myopia with Noé’s own (they both share a number of autobiographical details, plus Murphy at several points outlines his principles as a director which more or less describe Noé’s ambitions for Love) provides a piercingly self-interrogative streak.
Love (2015), directed by Gaspar Noé, is distributed in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye. Certificate 18.