There is an unspoken convention in writing about sexually explicit films for the reviewer to find some way to strongly imply that they were not themselves aroused. For instance, they will write that the film “lacked heat”, or was “surprisingly conservative”, or sometimes they’ll use the adjectives “tepid”, “shockingly dull”, or “clinical”. The implication is always the same, however, and perhaps the words say more about the reviewer than the film itself.
In recent years, there have been plentiful opportunities for reviewers to roll out these adjectives, as there have been more and more films that blurred the sweaty lines between pornography and cinema. Filmmakers like Catherine Breillat and Lars von Trier have made skillful use of body doubles to make it very clear what was before going on below the frame. Both are intelligent, difficult filmmakers, but their work tends to focus somewhat obsessively on the unhealthy aspects of sex, the ways our desires can push us to some very dark places. As one friend put it of von Trier’s two-part Nymphomaniac, “It was a decent movie, but I don’t really get the impression that he much likes sex.” In fact, of all the recent explicit movies (that I’ve seen anyway),1 the only one that seemed to me to have been made by someone looking to promote the one activity that really needs no promotion was Cameron Mitchell’s dippy Shortbus (2006) a sex-positive ensemble piece about hip New Yorkers overcoming their hangups (yes, that again!) and laying happily ever after.
So, it was hard to shiver with much anticipation at the news that Gaspar Noé was making a sexually explicit film in 3-D, a format that seemingly peaked with Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954. Noé is known for the trippy and difficult Enter the Void (2009) and the vicious and assaultive Irreversible (2002) and is the type of director who gets called a “provocateur”, so it seemed likely to be another film about sex in which the act, or everything around it would be ugly. This prediction was somewhat complicated though by two interesting notes: first, Noé said in interviews that his hope was to evoke the highly aestheticized, even lovely style exemplified by 70s sex films like Emmanuelle. Secondly, Noé has a character in Love signal his intentions by bemoaning the lack of “sentimental sexuality” in films, by which I take him to mean the tendency in films, particularly porn films, to depict one of the most emotional events in many people’s lives in a totally unemotional way.
The characters at the center of Love, Murphy (played by Karl Glusman) and Electra (Aomi Muyock), are certainly emotional, although I suppose it could be argued that they don’t really love one another. And they certainly do have real sex, which Noé gets out of the way right at the beginning with the two naked actors manually stimulating one another to climax. Murphy and Electra have a lot of sex in the film, all of which is shown in flashbacks as their relationship has ended badly. There is also one epic encounter with a third, which is shot rather tastefully from above, in semi slow motion, and scored to rather irritating acid rock by Pink Floyd. The threesome scene has been the most hyped sequence in the film and it was clear that Noé intended the sex to be both arousing and evocative of a drug experience. The cinematography, by Benoît Debie, is quite nice. Just to avoid hypocrisy here, the sex scenes were mildly arousing and my date and I were at least inspired to make out in the back of the nearly empty Ottawa theater at several points.
Despite all of their hot sex, Murphy and Electra’s relationship fell apart. The film takes place on New Year’s Day, with Murphy waking up with his current partner, Omi (Klara Kristin) who once took part in that threesome, but to whom Murphy went back for some moresome, resulting in a pregnancy, a child, and a much gloomier life than he would have had with Electra. His ex, meanwhile, hasn’t exactly improved her station, having gotten hooked on cocaine and disappeared, which results in a call from her mother to Mopey Murphy in hopes of finding her. Is she dead? If so, was it his fault? The body of the film is him recalling their love through their sex. To refer to this as a “tragedy” is something the film doesn’t really deserve, yet I think that’s what Noé has in mind through the structure of the story, not to mention her classically tragic name. One cringe-worthy line even has Murphy observe “I think Electra has a daddy complex”, to which I suppose the audience is meant to smirk knowingly.
Does it hold up though? The tragic sense, as I see it, is the awareness that our desires often far outstrip what we’re allowed in life and that this gap often leads us to pain. As in tragedy, the characters fall prey to their own flaws and one of them might well die off screen. They also seem to be ciphers: he for “Murphy’s law” which flashes on the screen at one point and she for the Electra complex. His unwanted child is even called Gaspar. The problem is that they’re ciphers mostly because they’re not particularly well-developed characters. Murphy is a self-centered, fairly pretentious mope who gets his true love into cocaine before cheating on her and getting Omi pregnant. Omi is portrayed as little more than a drag on his life. Electra is madly in love and lust with him and too hopelessly devoted, which proves her downfall. To be fair, it probably should be remembered that we only know of Electra through his memories, so he might be remembering her as a one-dimensional sexual fantasy. In an extreme interpretation, she might even have been a figment of his imagination.
This leads to a major question about art: should artists depict characters who are vapid, selfish, and self-absorbed? Aren’t many real people this way? There have been plenty of intelligent and humanistic depictions of deeply flawed people in cinematic history. Furthermore, the characters here are sufficiently young that this could be a first love, and weren’t most of us vapid, pretentious, oversexed, and naively romantic in our younger years? Is it possible to make an interesting chamber drama about uninteresting people? Is it worthwhile? Is it necessary?
Stephen King once made the observation that “genre” fiction, such as his own, tends to deal with ordinary people in extraordinary situations, while “literary” fiction deals with extraordinary people in ordinary situations. This film, however, is of a subgenre of independent movie that shows painfully ordinary people in depressingly ordinary situations. Like young love itself, one hopes against hope that it will work, but aside from the sex, there’s ultimately just too much lacking.
- Note: I have not yet seen Blue is the Warmest Color, a film that also depicts young love in a sexually explicit way.