By James Hancock October 29th, 2015
Few filmmakers working today are as controversial and divisive as Gaspar Noé, the director responsible for Irreversible (2002) and Enter the Void (2009). While I do not count myself among his most vocal admirers, I have tremendous respect for any director who successfully manages to shock his viewers out of the dull complacency that so many movies these days seem so eager to reinforce. Whether you love or hate his movies, no one would ever describe them as innocuous fare and personally I love hearing reactions from people who accidentally stumble across his work with no idea what is in store for them. Tonight I saw his latest film Love at the Angelika Film Center in New York and to my happy surprise Gaspar Noé and his lead actress Aomi Muyock were there in attendance for a Q&A after the show. From their playful attitude, anyone who had not seen the film would assume they had simply made an ordinary love story. While the movie on the surface is concerned exclusively with the nature of love and how it affects our lives, in terms of content the film itself is very much in the spirit of Noé’s previous efforts. While less preoccupied with shock value than his earlier work, the film takes full advantage of its 3D format with one sex scene after another for much of its 135 minute running time. Small correction: Noé insisted that the sex be referred to as ‘love scenes’ during the Q&A and for open-minded viewers, they will not disagree. Many prudes will pretend to be shocked and I’m sure many bloggers will predictably write about how Noé has gone too far. But the reality is that for me, Love is the most enjoyable, emotionally satisfying film I have seen by Gaspar Noé to date and the one that I am most eager to return to see for a second time.
The premise of the film is relatively simple. Karl Glusman plays a young film student named Murphy living in Paris. He has a wife named Omi and a young son but is unhappily married and thinks constantly about his ex-girlfriend Electra, an exotic beauty with whom he had a tempestuous, drug-fueled love affair. When Murphy learns that Electra has not been heard from for months, he experiences a series of vivid flashbacks about their time together, told completely out of sequence. The film is a little slow to get started but as soon as the flashbacks begin, the rest of the movie becomes a volatile, roller coaster love affair filled with all manner of sexual experimentation, jealousy, violence, but most of all, love. The erotic side of this film will likely confuse many younger viewers in that it does not resemble at all the typical approach to pornography where filmmakers are more concerned with putting the performers in unconventional positions that give the camera better access to their anatomy. While equally graphic in content as most pornography, the scenes in Love are shot instead for the benefit of the pleasure of the actors, not for the vantage point of the viewer who would presumably be masturbating in front of their computer at home if this were merely an adult film. The actors genuinely appear to have reached a level of intimacy that makes the sex far more intense than most young porn aficionados will be accustomed to. At a press conference prior to releasing the film, Noé stated, ‘With my next film, I really hope men may have hard-ons and women can get wet.’ While I think this film will be successful on that front for many, more importantly, I think many people who watch the movie will have some of the most adventurous sex of their lives for as long as this film remains fresh on their minds.
I have one major grievance against the film, and from what I learned at the Q&A tonight, this nearly fatal flaw was unavoidable. Karl Glusman might be the least charismatic, least interesting actor ever to step in front of a camera. He is more than up for the sexual athletics required of him in this movie and I was highly impressed with his sexual prowess. But every time he speaks a line of dialogue, I was cringing in embarrassment on his behalf. He plays an aspiring filmmaker and his apartment is littered with film books and movie posters for controversial film classics such as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Pasolini’s Salò (1975). He wears t-shirts emblazoned with Fassbender across the front and lectures his lover about how 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) made him want to be a director. But every time he even mentions his career and his interests, he comes across like a total charlatan, one who has never heard of any of these filmmakers he claims to love, much less seen any of their films. Aomi Muyock was cast first in the film and Noé allowed her to participate in the auditions for her co-star in that she was going to have to spend so much time having sex with him while making the film. At the Q&A, Aomi described how when they met, Glusman was extremely polite and respectful to such a degree that she could enjoy being with him on camera even if the movie ultimately proved to be a disappointment. Her instincts about the physical side of things were 100% accurate, but sadly as an actor he is unable to bring anything else to the movie.
As much as I might have been distracted by Glusman’s lackluster performance, apparently he was a trooper on the set and willing to do anything Noé asked him to. On the very first day of shooting, Noé asked Glusman to masturbate straight into the camera being operated by Noé himself and the result was the shot no one can forget after having seen it in 3D. So while I applaud Glusman’s work ethic and courage, overall I found his performance to be incredibly distracting. With that in mind, the rest of the movie I really enjoyed. Aomi Muyock and Klar Kristin join Glusman in a threesome that will go down in film history as one of the best ever caught on film. Aomi had never acted before and was recruited by Noé after he spent some time with her socially. Most of the actors in the film were found at bars and parties, giving the film a naturalism that I find far more arousing than the majority of most professionally made pornography. I am confident this film will divide audiences just as much as Noé’s other films, but I strongly urge everyone to see it, preferably in 3D. It is the kind of movie where it is best to ignore reviews (including this one) and form one’s own opinions about the experience. I’m always confused by the aversion to sex in American film and I think more American viewers need to be exposed to movies like Love on a regular basis. I hope that today’s up and coming filmmakers who have grown up in a porn-saturated online society will have a more relaxed attitude on this front. The clock is ticking down to a period when we’ll have fully interactive virtual realities where every sexual fetish can be explored. The 3D immersive experience of Love is but one of many steps in that inevitable direction. Gaspar Noé is one of the few filmmakers alive willing to explore these boundaries. He may not be one of my personal favorite filmmakers, but it is my sincere hope that he continues to shock and arouse his audiences for many years to come.
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