PLOT: After he's informed his ex-girlfriend is missing, an American expat reminisces about their turbulent years together.
REVIEW: Who knew Gaspar Noe was just a lovesick romantic at heart? A perverse, fetishistic romantic, of course, but the provocateur known for such button-pushing, surreal titles as IRREVERSIBLE and ENTER THE VOID displays a surprising soft streak in his latest, LOVE. The film, which is making headlines thanks to its graphic sex scenes and 3D gimmick (3D spooge!), is a vivid depiction of a doomed love affair complete with all the arthouse tinsel you could think of - stark, Kubrickian photography, a diverse, omnipresent soundtrack, seemingly nonstop unsimulated sex - but at its heart its a fairly conventional tale of an unremarkable guy, the wild girl he falls in love with, and their tumultuous relationship that ends badly.
As to get off on the right foot, Noe opens his film with a prolonged sequence of two lovers pleasuring each other's genitals while wrapped in erotic embrace. Yep, it's all right there in your face, and even though we live in an age when every possible sex act can be viewed online for free, there's no doubt there's still something unusual and titillating about seeing it on the big screen (in 3D no less), and shot so well. Noe is very particular about his framing, every scene composed just right - often matching with the scene that follows. The sex scenes are indeed incredibly well put-together; nothing is here for shock value, just our viewing pleasure. Well, okay, there is one moment of shock value - that 3D spooge I so eloquently alluded to - but that moment gets more of a laugh than a gasp. All in all, the sex sequences are finely crafted and enjoyable from a purely cinematic standpoint, and yes, they're sexy too.
The two lovers we meet early on are Murphy (Karl Glusman) and Electra (Aomi Muyock). When we next encounter Murphy, it's several months (or years) later, and he's a changed man. Living with a different woman, Omi (Klara Kristen) and a son, Murphy tells us via voice-over how miserable and depressed he is in his current situation. A phone call from Electra's mother informs Murphy that Electra is missing, which triggers a series of flashbacks to their fraught relationship, which included drugs, infidelity, constant arguing, jealousy and, of course, passionate lovemaking.
We get to learn a little more about these two, but not too much. Murphy is a pretentious wannabe filmmaker, who makes a lot of noise about the movies he's going to make but never actually on the verge of creating something. Electra is an artist, somewhat beholden to a sleazy gallery owner (Noe himself, having fun), but rife with the problems all sexy-crazy young French women have in movies like this; she's eccentric, sensual, possibly suicidal, irresistible and unstable. Even with all these issues, we don't quite understand what she sees in Murphy, who is laidback but hardly a charmer. Nevertheless, we're immersed in a cornucopia of greatest hits and greatest lows of this couple's rollercoaster love affair, which at one point involved a threesome with a sweet neighbor girl - Omi, Murphy's current partner.
The story isn't exactly groundbreaking, and Noe's dialogue is sometimes so self-indulgent and on-the-nose that we can't entirely be sure if he's being tongue-in-cheek or not. My guess is not. (That's not to say Noe can't wink at the camera - Murphy's son is named Gaspar and the sleazy art dealer is named Noe - and there are plenty of moments where we're invited to laugh at Murphy's idiotic cluelessness.) But those pretty pictures Noe creates certainly elevate the ho-hum tale into something quite sumptuous, every frame its own painting. The filmmaker does an interesting thing where transitions between scenes come courtesy of a quick black cut, as if we're blinking and entering a new memory, and while it may be just as much of a gimmick as the 3D, it works on its own abstract terms. LOVE is a perfect example of style trumping substance in every way.
The acting is fine, although unexceptional. You might jest that Noe didn't need to cast great actors for his sex movie, but you'd be wrong, since there's much more talking than banging in LOVE. Glusman isn't a terrible actor, he's able to exude the character's naïveté and smugness, but he's far from remarkable, and one can't help but think LOVE would be much more emotionally fulfilling if it had a more forceful, memorable performer in the lead role. What Noe saw in him isn't apparent - aside from, ahem, his biggest physical asset - and it doesn't help sell the idea that the luscious Electra would fall for him. Muyock exhibits some raw talent in a few emotional scenes, but Noe never gets too close to the character; like Murphy, he doesn't seem to understand her very well, he simply desires her. More Electra and less Murphy might have been the way to go, now that I think about it. What LOVE could have been if its core were as exemplary as its glorious surface.