Sentiment and sex go hand in hand in Love, the fourth feature film from acclaimed director Gaspar Noé. Best known for bringing violence and depravity to the screen in Irreversible and Enter the Void, the director mostly sets his darker tendencies to the side here, offering a surprisingly sweet and occasionally moving account of a passionate young relationship – all with absolutely oodles of graphic, explicit sex.
Noé makes his intentions clear from the opening frame, a long single-take crane shot of a couple engaged in mutual masturbation. These are Murphy (Karl Glusman) and Electra (Aomi Muyock), but their relationship is nothing but a memory – by the next scene, Murphy wakes up to his wife Omi (Klara Kristin) and 2-year-old son, a mundane existence he clearly loathes. After a missed phone call sparks reminiscence, Murphy revisits his memories of Electra, with whom he is still in love.
Frequent narrative jumps leave the timeline disordered and jumbled as the script, written by Noé, touches on the assorted highs and lows of the passionate relationship, tracked in part by the pair’s changing sexual mores. The sex is shot artfully, making the most of the 3D cameras in simple, static two-shot sequences, frequently using a crane to shoot scenes from directly above. Noé doesn’t shy away from his subject matter (one particular 3D money shot should make that clear enough), though avoids graphic penetration, leaving at least some little left to the imagination.
The cast are commendably game for the frequent bedroom scenes, and play a major part in achieving the film’s stated goal of capturing the “passion” of young love, but are on less stable ground with their clothes on. Glusman is too often dreary and monotone, not helped by frequently stilted English dialogue, while Muyock is frustratingly inconsistent, and downright dreadful in the film’s moments of serious upset.
There’s a strong autobiographical streak throughout Love, and it’s hard not to suspect this is a rather personal work for the director, who inserts himself into the film liberally. His views appear in Murphy, a proxy who discusses the need for films that capture love and sex; his name appears in Murphy’s son Gaspar (and indeed Murphy himself takes the director’s mother’s maiden name); he even appears more literally playing Electra’s ex-boyfriend – named, you guessed it, Noé. The references are cute at first, but quickly become a distraction from the already thin plot.
Thankfully, Noé is interested in more than just the sordid, and Love is committed to the titular emotion. The extremities of Murphy and Electra’s experiences may not prove entirely universal, but much of the sentiment will, and the film does touch on rich emotional ground, not least in a late pair of back-to-back walk-and-talk scenes, contrasting the beginning and end of the couple’s love life. The sex serves its purpose here too, at its best carrying and furthering the story’s emotional expression, offering more than cheap titillation.
Love is a celebration of sex, passion and, of course, love – a far cry from the most obvious point of comparison, Lars von Trier’s two-part Nymphomaniac. Where von Trier explored addiction and self-destruction, Noé finds sensuality and ardour, lust as secondary to love. Simple-minded and heartfelt, this is a love letter more than a treatise, an emotional appeal to re-visit an act that cinema has tended to either shy away from or show at its worst. It’s a pity that a shaky script and shakier cast hold it back, but there’s a lot to love in Love.
Just don’t go to see it with your mum.
Words by Dominic Preston