Using the camera as a (sex) toy and featuring the most hardcore intercourse scenes ever shown at Cannes, the controversial director’s latest joint is a 3-D auteur porn movie—one designed to shock the critics, arouse the viewers, and introduce the notion of “sentimental sexuality.”
Each edition of the Cannes Film Festival needs a good deal of sex and scandal to make it lively, to grab the attention of the press and of a large part of the audience. Since Luis Buñuel with his film Virdiana in 1961, Cannes has always been the perfect place to show full-frontal sex in “auteur cinema.” This year it was Gaspar Noé, the famous enfant terrible of contemporary French cinema, who was in charge of bringing flesh and controversy onscreen with his sexually explicit 3-D movie LOVE.
The final cut was not ready when the official selection was announced, but Thierry Fremaux, the director of the festival, smelled the perfume of scandal and wanted to present the movie in his festival. Noé worked twenty hours a day to reach the finish line in time for the Cannes premiere, and LOVE was finally shown out of competition in a midnight screening. There were, of course, other movies dealing with nudity, but Noe’s new opus was by far the most hotly, wetly, erectly anticipated. Before the premiere, the film had been described as a highly provocative, sexually driven drama. Its promotional posters featured semen-drenched font design, a three-way and sloppy tongue mix, and a proudly erect penis. Even more arousing: it was in 3-D! Who wouldn’t want to see a 3-D porn movie?
The Argentinian-born director is famous for his in-your-face style of filmmaking. You must know him from one of his previous features: I Stand Alone, Irreversible, and Enter the Void, each of which provoked reactions of both outrage and praise. Talking about LOVE in interviews, Noé himself was more than clear: “With my next film, I hope guys will have erections and girls will get wet.”
Running over two hours long, LOVE presented spectators with what was undoubtedly the most hardcore onscreen sex ever shown at Cannes. The film is collage-like, with successive cuts to black punctuating its depiction of a troubled and immature relationship between Murphy (Karl Glusman), an American ex-pat living in Paris, and his former French girlfriend Electra (Aomi Muyock). Murphy is an aspiring filmmaker with dreams of making a sentimental sex movie in which feelings are expressed through lovemaking. It is hard not to hear the voice of the French director in this line of dialogue, but unfortunately, Noé doesn’t accomplish as much with this film.
In LOVE, sex and sentiment remain separate. If you remove the sex scenes, the story itself is rather trivial and, beyond the 3-D treatment, there is nothing playful or surprising in the way the scenes are filmed. The film brings a lot of positions and permutations—in couple, threesomes and group, and in a variety of locations—but always in a very cold and pornographic way, showcasing only casual, heteronormative and male-centered sexuality. The sex is always perfectly performed by actors with great bodies. But despite all the sperm, tears and saliva, the result feels hollow: too smooth, too tame to make the humping, licking, swallowing, signify anything meaningful. It is like Noé as a provocateur had written a manifesto, but as a director, hadn’t respected his own rules. Maybe LOVE is not a film about a couple, but about the phenomenon that exists between Murphy and Electra; not really “love,” but rather, as the main character Murphy calls it, “sentimental sexuality.”
After all, sexuality was already a key topic in the self-consciously controversial director’s previous movies. For Noé and his long-time collaborator and chief operator Benoit Debie, the camera is like a (sex) toy. There are at least two full-frontal sex scenes in Noé’s filmography that will always polarize, but inevitably affect, the spectators. In his most shocking piece of work, Irreversible, a nine-minute rape scene with Monica Bellucci filmed in a single, unbroken shot, leaving nothing to the imagination, is one the audience will never forget. In Enter the Void, on the other hand, there are several indications that the main character has incestuous feelings for his sister, and we look on, partly stunned, partly horrified, as he watches her being penetrated by a giant CGI penis from a vantage point within her vagina. Some will see these notorious sequences as weird pornography hiding behind so-called art, others will declare them genius, but everyone must admit there is consistency to Noé’s filmography.
There are plenty of details and references in LOVE that evoke his previous films: the cold and bitter voice-over recalls the protagonist of I Stand Alone; the deconstructed storytelling recalls Irreversible; a flash brings to mind the 2001-look-alike trip sequence of Enter the Void, whose “Love Hotel” model is echoed in Murphy’s place. Generally speaking, it’s easy to draw a parallel between the mechanism of drug addiction described in Enter the Void and the process of being in love, which Noé himself has described as being “like an addiction to some kind of weird chemical that your brain is releasing, and you get addicted to serotonin and dopamine, endorphins.” But LOVE is tonally different from his previous work: its sexuality may be hardcore, but the effect is much softer than Noé’s earlier movies, lacking the shock factor of Irreversible and I Stand Alone and the severe mind-meddling of Enter the Void. Though highly anticipated, LOVE is probably a minor work in Gaspar Noé’s filmography. Still, his powerful filmmaking force remains obvious. If you judge LOVE by its visual bravura, it’s actually rather amazing. The inevitable money shot—a 3-D cum shot sprayed from Murphy’s larger-than-life penis directly into the spectator’s eye—is not the film’s most interesting visual statement. Sculpted lights and characteristically vivid colors highlight every perfect pore of the young actors’ skin in visually impressive scenes, often captured with top shots where the bodies are framed in what look like dance choreographies, set to a soundtrack that blends contemporary electronic music with Bach. Because of this aestheticized approach, the onscreen sensuality may be judged to not seem true to life, and maybe LOVE is not the movie everybody was waiting for. But it certainly does continue Noé’s mission—his tireless quest for the perfect film about drugs, violence, life and sex.
Gaspar Noé (Argentinian, b.1963) is a film director who now lives in France. Among his best known features are Irreversible (2002) and Enter the Void (2009).
Damien Megherbi runs a film production company and writes about cinema in several magazines.