If you've kept up with contemporary French films for the last fifteen years, you've probably been exposed to — or perhaps more properly, been assaulted by — the wave of films that attempt to shock, surprise or generally rub the viewer's face in explicit sex, violence and pompous nihilism. It's been called the New French Extremism, and it blurs the lines between art and exploitation, between personal filmmaking and horror/porn. With Love, the latest film from Argentinian-turned Parisian Gaspar Noé, a central figure in the Extremist wave, those lines have been erased altogether.
Love — a title I suspect is meant to be ironic — revolves around Murphy (Karl Glusman), a self-absorbed young American living in Paris. Murphy is described as a film student (posters for Taxi Driver and M fill his walls) but he's never shown in a class or a studio, and the only time we see him using a camera he's shooting a talking-head video that is indistinguishable from the roughly 5,000 other amateur videos that have been posted on YouTube since you started reading this sentence.
Early in the film, Murphy learns that a former lover, Electra (Aomi Muyock), has disappeared. He spends the remainder of the film recalling their relationship and wallowing in bruised self-pity. In randomly structured flashbacks that give the illusion of more narrative weight than they actually bear, we see their infidelities (mostly his), their bouts of insobriety (ditto) and their many arguments, punctuated by non-simulated and oddly dispassionate sex scenes.
The sex scenes are numerous, but aside from a few instances of body parts pointing directly at the camera (the film was shot in 3-D), they're also fairly routine. (One loopy exception: On the recommendation of a friendly police officer, Murphy and Electra visit a sex club where members and performers writhe on stage to themes from John Carpenter films). It's hard to imagine that Noé really believes he's shocking his viewers or breaking new ground. Four decades after Last Tango in Paris and porno chic and fifteen years into into the porn-saturated 21st century, Noé's young cast isn't reinventing the wheel.
This is Noé's first film in English, though his familiarity with the language is questionable. The dialogue often sounds like an awkwardly literal translation, and many of the performers sound like they're reciting their lines phonetically. Murphy's voice-over monologues have the flat quality you get from bad dubbing. Language here is, of course, largely unimportant, and you could probably follow the film just as easily if you ignored the banal dialogue and focused on the claustrophobic compositions and awkwardly lethargic sex scenes.
And yet even without those scenes, Love follows the example of New Extremism through the sheer loutishness of its central character. As Murphy's relationship with Electra worsens, his misogyny and resentment take over, and he begins to obsessively remind people that he is an American, as if his nationality was both an excuse for and an explanation of his brutality. As in other New Extreme films, America gives Noé a convenient excuse for Murphy, and for his own self-indulgence. Noé wallows in Murphy's bad behavior, but also vaguely scolds him for his Americanness. The young man is self-centered, small-minded and brutish — but I suspect that Noé finds these to be normal, admirable qualities for a typical young male today. As he lovingly frames Glusman in close-up for more than half the film, it's not unrealistic to presume that Noé excuses his character's behavior and even sees him as a surrogate: Murphy shares the director's favorite film — 2001 — and, in a perverse bit of cinematic narcissism, gives his child the director's own name, Gaspar.
In Love, Noé exposes and forgives Murphy's caveman attitudes by pretending they're a kind of romanticism. He explores — and shares — them with a fashion photographer's eye and a drunken frat boy's sense of entitlement.