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Love (2015)

A Many-Splattered Thing

Gaspar Noé is no stranger to gimmickry. The writer/director often uses a buzz-worthy hook to get audiences in the door, and then relies on the strength of his ideas and talents as a twisted visual craftsman to keep people glued to their seats (this doesn't always work). Irreversible told the story of a couple torn apart by a brutal sexual assault and the bloody revenge that followed; Noé began at the end of their hellish night, and worked backwards to the sun-drenched optimism of a blissfully ignorant morning. Enter the Void put us in the head of a twenty-something club kid who overdoses at the beginning of the film, and we experience his omniscient journey from one plane of existence to the next.

Love is a 3D melodrama/porn film whose opening three minutes finds young lovers Murphy (Karl Glusman) and Electra (Aomi Muyock) masturbating each other to climax in a single, straightforward take. There's a lot of sex in this movie; much of it real, much of it involving impossibly beautiful people indulging a smorgasbord of fantasies. And, if you're generally subject to that kind of stimuli, these scenes are very effective. But Love has a story, too, a bona fide mystery--not to mention a great deal to say about maturity, fidelity, jealousy, and even parenthood. This is the art-house realization of Jack Horner's vision from Boogie Nights: a steamy skin flick that demands audiences invest in the characters and situations.

Granted, Love doesn't feature the cute, innocuous set-ups you'll find in many adult films. No pizza delivery guy showing up at the sorority house, no college professors disciplining bad students after lecture, no alternate methods of payment for a car wash well done. This is a movie about dysfunctional, selfish wannabes who believe that extreme experiences will make them better artists and cooler human beings. Murphy is an American who ostensibly moved to Paris to go to film school, but who spends much of his time fooling around with art-school student Electra in his apartment (which is at least wallpapered with lobby posters of important and/or kitsch-y films). They do drugs, screw, and ponder their leisurely future of raising seven kids and making important art.

When an attractive girl named Omi (Klara Kristin) moves into the apartment across the way from Murphy's place, the couple invites her to dinner and then to bed. As you might imagine, there's a complicated aftermath to this carefree night of passion, and Noé teases us by toying with his timeline. In the future, the slender, model-esque Murpy is an overweight, dead-eyed wage slave of some kind. He's married to Omi, and the two raise their toddler, Gaspar (Ugo Fox), in a tiny apartment that ping-pongs their constant arguments off the walls, reinforcing the echoes of regret in Murphy's head.

What happened to Electra? There's the mystery. She disappeared a few months earlier, and Murphy becomes obsessed with finding her--well, as obsessed as one can be when the "search" is limited to angrily calling a drug-dealing friend (Juan Saavedra) and Electra's distraught mother (Isabelle Nicou). Following a nasty argument, Omi storms out of the apartment with Gaspar in tow, leaving Murphy to dig up an old pill Electra once gave him as a gift. He trips and reminisces about better times, worse times, and, most importantly, all the awesome sex they had.

Watching Love, I got the distinct impression that Noé was making a statement or two (or three) about dropping an American entitlement bomb in the middle of European culture. Murphy is a nasty, selfish, not-so-bright jerk who can charm his way up any skirt in the room. His scummy magnetism attracts all kinds of women and trouble--from the morally ambiguous Electra, whose emotional fidelity evaporates at the first sign of trouble; to Omi, whose firm pro-life stance ensnares Murphy after a condom break; to the myriad random hook-ups in club bathrooms and orgy dungeons. Murphy carpet bombs his adoptive liberated society with semen, but falls victim to the Puritan-guilt DNA of his homeland. He becomes a stand-up guy because, ultimately, he won't stand up for himself. Would Omi and Gaspar really have been worse off if Murphy had left the picture?

In addition to the director's signature nightmare aesthetics (the frequent "blinks" that signify leaps in time and consciousness; the omnipresent, oppressive red lighting), Noé reinforces the idea that his audience has paid a significant up-charge to watch porn in a movie theatre. It's the next logical step, really. Where does one go with the technology, creatively, after the diminishing returns of superheroes and robots clobbering each other for two-plus hours? The answer, apparently, is a straight-on close-up of a penis ejaculating mightily at the audience. It's an angry sight, and an ugly one, but it contains more tension and dimension than a thousand CGI Ultrons buzzing the camera.

Unfortunately, many of the themes and visual assumptions I've just presented are merely unpacked baggage that I brought into Love. I interviewed Noé shortly after watching the film, and he said Murphy's persona was largely informed by what Glusman brought to the role. His American-ness and gross, ignorant rantings were improvisational happy-accidents--not part of a grand statement that the filmmaker had set out to make. The 3D was included thanks to a French arts grant.

So maybe Love really is just a long, ugly movie punctuated by graphic sex--an art-house 3D porn film. I refuse to accept that. Like Murphy, I choose to filter reality through the lens of my own experiences, my own emotions, and my own understanding of how the universe works. For me, Love is the least kinetic and the least visually audacious of Noé's works, but it continues the auteur's streak of finding an honest, spiritual center at the core of the most depraved and reckless human behavior.

Murphy may have spent his whole life ignorant of true love but well-versed in its accoutrements. In the end, we see him turn a corner (maybe) and watch as he slowly falls in "like". I won't say with whom, but the answer is worth discovering. Forget 3D orgasms; subjective rabbit-hole plot developments are cinema's new frontier.

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