Sex on the Silver Screen: Gaspar Noe’s ‘Love’

Wednesday, May 8, 2019 - 9:30pm

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Let’s talk about sex. Sex in film is a bit like the wild west — I’ve seen the good, the bad and definitely the ugly. Sex can be a blank canvas for a director, an arena in which to explore relationships between characters and to build the atmosphere of the film. Or, it can be a hook, unnecessary trailer bait to entice the prospective moviegoer (“The Aftermath”). Throughout the summer I’ll be writing weekly about sex in film: good, bad and ugly. Being a fundamental human process, sex can be a valuable tool to make claims about what it means to be human. Sex can have real societal implications as well — misogyny and bigotry in free internet porn being a prime example. Throughout the summer I’ll tackle additional films, and hopefully by September, I’ll have given the moviegoer a serialized guide to bumpin’ uglies on the big screen. Yes, I’ll pepper each article with awful euphemisms: enjoy.

First up is my personal favorite: “Love,” directed by Gaspar Noe (“Climax”). I adore Noe. He is an artist, and his keen eye for color and composition brings life to his films. They live and breathe on their own, independent of the viewer’s gaze. Sex is “Love.” The film’s two-hour and 22-minute runtime  is due in large part to the gratuitous, unsimulated and long sex scenes. “Love” is full of temporal jumps and flashbacks, following Murphy’s (Karl Glusman, “The Neon Demon”) relationships with his now-ex-girlfriend Electra (Aomi Muyock, “Scenario”), son Gaspar (Ugo Fox) and son’s mother Omi (Klara Kristin, “Baby Got Back”). These flashbacks are provoked by a concerned phone call from Electra’s mother who hasn’t heard from her daughter for too long. Murphy is an American living in Paris, introduced to the passion, parties and drugs of Parisian artists by his then-girlfriend Electra. Their love is romantic, intimate, intense.

The film’s long sex scenes develop these relationships by giving the viewer an intimate look behind the bedroom door. Sex can be an integral part of forming emotional dependencies, such as those exhibited by Electra and Murphy. For Noe, the sex scenes aren’t a cheap attempt at boosting ticket sales. In fact, Noe’s choice to film “Lovein 3D caused mixed reactions among viewers at the films opening. A crowd favorite: a male ejaculation filmed head-on. I can only imagine what the 3D experience would’ve been. Noe does enjoy provocation, as confirmed by his other films, though “Loveis not nearly as jarring or disturbing as his most recent feature “Climax.”

Love” begins with sex. The first thing the viewer sees is three minutes of Electra and Murphy making love. This sets the tone for the rest of the film, and keys the viewer in to the pornographic nature of Noe’s unsimulated sex. Jumping ahead, the first scene with real plot importance is the threesome between Electra, Murphy and Omi. After Omi moves into Murphy’s apartment complex, the couple invites her to join them.

Here, the film begins to depart from heteronormativity and embraces the result. The trio are engrossed in each other, and the scene is shot with an artist’s eye. The camera directly overhead, the shot is not cluttered. All we see is the rhythmic movement of three tangled bodies atop wrinkling sheets. The edges of the frame are vignetted as though we’re looking through a peephole or enjoying a good dream. What makes “Love” different and sets its sex apart from that of internet porn is the cuddling, pillow talk and playful foreplay.

In particular, the film returns a few times to a scene toward the beginning of the film in which Murphy lies perpendicular to Electra, head on her stomach. The two are nude, and whisper comfortably about drugs and sexual fantasies. Later, in a flashback to this moment, they discuss baby names. Noe uses his signature cut to black to remove certain parts of the dialogue, yet the intimate and open nature of this moment is not lost.

What really distinguishes “Love” from pornography is the admission of humanness. Noe does not cut the fumbling to undress. The women in his films are not hairless. For Noe, sex is about a human connection beyond pleasure. The unrealistic moaning and aggressive masculinity of internet porn is exchanged for tenderness. Believe me, I am not pretending that Electra and Murphy are the perfect couple. Their fights and misdeeds are malicious; however, the added texture only increases the intimacy and honesty of the film.

Noe’s cinematographic style is vibrant and unique. Through color, framing, vignetting, slow motion, 3D and cuts to black, Gaspar Noe breaks the boundary between viewer and actor, showing sequences of participatory humanity with which much of the audience may be familiar. Despite a majority of the action taking place in Murphy’s bedroom, “Love” explores the social and societal implications of passionate sex and emotional dependency in a relationship.

“Love” is a great starting point and baseline for our “sexploration” of film. Noe’s artistic and technical skill show raw and honest sexuality along with its consequences. While the film may be hard to appreciate for some, the viewers who challenge themselves to see beyond the purely erotic and into the intimate will leave “Love” with a greater appreciation for sex and romance in film.