On the one hand, it’d be easy (and tempting) to discuss Love, the new film from Gaspar Noé, solely through the lens of the movie’s sex. There’s certainly a lot of it, and it’s explicit, with unsimulated sex scenes making up a significant portion of the film’s two hour running time.
But to only discuss the sex would mean occluding the ostensible aims of the film, which are manifold, in spite of the sexualized imagery in the film’s promotional materials and their suggestion that Love really is a mere act of provocation. What little narrative there is tells the story of the love triangle between Murphy (Karl Glusman), Electra (Aomi Muyock), and Omi (Klara Kristin), and Murphy’s determination to find Electra after her mother (Isabelle Nicou) informs him of her disappearance. As a result of the news, he begins reflecting on their relationship, and Love becomes a non-linear exploration of the romance between the two.
It’s a relationship which gets interrupted through the intrusion of Omi, who joins their life via a threesome to the tune of “Maggot Brain.” Soon after, Electra leaves town, and Murphy uses her absence as an opportunity to sleep with Omi without Electra’s interference. In the midst of their affair, a condom breaks, and Omi gets pregnant. The roles reverse, and he ends up in a relationship with her, with Electra as the subject of his adulterous desire.
What the orgy demonstrates, as does much of the film, is just how much of a narrative one can tell through sex. Whereas even directors who depict sex use it as a mere signifier (to indicate that the characters had sex, without going into further detail), Noé uses his sex scenes to delve into the relationships between characters. There are clear narrative implications when, for example, Murphy decides to pleasure Omi rather than Electra, and the scenes wouldn’t be able to convey the same meanings without Love‘s level of explicitness Rather than merely featuring the scenes for the sake of depicting graphic sex, Noé uses the graphicness to get into a level of detail about the relationships between his characters most films simply can’t approach.
Noé then combines these details within the wider structure of the film to create a disturbing and powerful portrait of gender relations. Murphy is a wannabe filmmaker whose lack of artistic achievement combines with his jealousy of Electra to make him a possessive hothead. He delights in condescendingly explaining 2001 to her, using any advantage he can to feel superior. Her own artistic ambitions are given less consideration, but Love suggests that Murphy simply doesn’t care.
He doesn’t care about a lot in her life, as Love demonstrates (in large part through the sex). Their tender lovemaking when Electra and Murphy first meet contrasts heavily with their rough and brutal sex as he grows jealous of her former lovers. Even more powerfully, Noé implicates himself (2001 is his favorite film, and Murphy names his child Gaspar), suggesting his understanding of male cruelty without exempting himself from it. Sex is depicted in many different ways throughout Love, and Noé uses the differences to provide an intimate look at the arc of a relationship.
As a result, Love becomes an all too rare thing in cinema: a story told through sex. Like In the Realm of the Senses, the film Love most resembles (although even that feels like an inadequate comparison), Noé treats sex with the importance and reverence it deserves. In spite of the prevalence of sex in our lives, too many filmmakers simply gloss over it through elision, keeping viewers from understanding a vital aspect of the relationships between characters. By contrast, films like In the Realm of the Senses and Love enable viewers to understand characters with a level of intimacy less explicit films simply cannot achieve.
Noé also uses the 3-D to create an even further feeling of closeness to the characters. Although his use of the effect is often rather subtle, it gives the scenes a depth which draw the viewer further into the action. When it’s most noticeable, such as in the home-movie scene or the obligatory (but far from gratuitous) ejaculation, the 3-D punctuates the action and allows for a powerful connection between film and viewer.
It’s a connection that could only be possible through the depiction of sex, and specifically with the explicitness Noé features in Love. There’s a lot of sex in Love, for sure, but Noé uses it to create an emotional and intimate portrait of erotic relationships.