Hollywood sex is vanilla sex. Sure, you’ve got everything from the Fifty Shades type of kink to the hardcore, random boot-knocking that does nothing for a movie’s plot like Crank 2, but that sex is polished and edited to a T. Female nudity is mystified, and don’t even get me started on its relationship with the male body. So, I had high hopes walking into a screening for Gaspar Noé’s latest boundary pusher, Love. Yet when I left, I was asked what I thought and all I could say was, “I feel very sad.”
A week has passed and that feeling still rings true.
Love follows the story of Murphy, an American film student in Paris who falls into a deeply passionate relationship with fellow art student Electra. Together, they tumble, screw, snort, smoke, and pill-pop into various states of unsimulated ecstasy. One night, post-coitus, Murphy asks Electra to tell him her ultimate fantasy. Oddly, it’s a threesome with a woman—preferably, a blonde. (I say “oddly” because that’s the cliché, cisgendered, heterosexual male’s fantasy and it seemed out of character for a woman as exotic and free spirited as Electra.) They find a blonde, bed her together, and that’s that. Until Murphy, who’s your typical prideful American loser that only thinks with his the thing between his legs, gets Omi (the blonde) pregnant after his condom breaks while cheating on Electra. The story, then, as most of Noé’s films go, dances with flashbacks and the present day. He wallows in how trapped he feels by Omi and the baby, and recalls his time spent with Electra, who is now missing.
Though it’s a feast for the eyes, Love falls short of its ambitions (and is easily Noé’s most tame). Why is it that the past few movies seeking to present sex and sexuality with a very real, raw sensibility are dark dramas? Like Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac saga, Love makes sex a villain. It’s what ruins Murphy and Electra’s life. The sex is plentiful, stunningly shot, and (refreshingly) not exploitative, but the narrative is bleak. Murphy is not just a hopeless romantic, but a ruthless one. He’s possessive, and wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Who cares how progressive the eroticism is when it’s wrapped in an inherent despair? Does he have a trajectory other than finding the next place to get his rocks off? Who is to blame for this young love gone so very far awry?
Perhaps I’m wrong and it’s love that’s made the villain here, not sex. Towards the end of the film, a flashback to the early days of Murphy and Electra find them musing about how love is a place one never wants to live, but it is the meaning of life. That paradox makes it messy. Love with sex and sex with love. The line is thin and it is blurry—even more so when watched in 3-D. Young love, in this case, is dirty, complicated, and fueled by rage, lust, and idealism. It’s never going to last; we all know that—yet we, like Murphy and those around him, keep coming to it again, and again, and again. What’s meant to connect two people, tears them apart; what’s meant to uplift, depresses; what’s meant to bring joy, drives one to madness. Rather than bask in the glow of an orgasm’s comedown, Love is slumped in dejection.