Some time ago, I lived next door to a couple who, by all accounts, were terrible for each other. I’d lie awake at night, listening through the paper-thin walls to their galvanic arguments, usually set off by some ludicrous imagined slight conjured up in a fit of paranoia. It would always devolve into hours-long spirals in which one would scream at the other to pack their things and leave while at the same time begging them to stay, all in the same dizzying breath. It happened with such frequency and ferocity, I thought for sure they would break up any day—it seemed impossible to imagine what could possibly be drawing these two people continually back into each other’s toxic orbit.
Far from the vulgar sextravaganza so much of the marketing has made Love out to be, Gaspar Noé’s latest is something of a paean to these passionate but ill-advised relationships. Murphy (Karl Glusman) is an American-expat and wannabe filmmaker living in Paris. When news hits that his ex-girlfriend Electra (Aomi Muyock), has been missing for months, Murphy looks back their relationship, a self-destructive, volatile connection tempered by moments of genuine sweetness and earnest desire.
Murphy and Electra are in love, but a heady mix of lust and co-dependence is not enough to sustain a relationship. Love is thankfully smarter than that, and the reasons for Murphy and Electra’s implosion are commendably unglamourous—neither are willing to put in the hard work of maintaining anything resembling a healthy, egalitarian partnership. Or perhaps, neither are aware that love requires such an obligation. Regrets are had over the relationship falling apart, but not over the mistakes made. No doubt about it, Murphy is a piece of shit: unrepentantly selfish, defensive, jealous, and philandering. Thankfully, Noé is well aware of Murphy’s shortcomings (no pun intended), and in telling the story through his eyes, lays bare the fallacy of love as an all-conquering, all-consuming force.
As for the sex: yes, it is in-your-face graphic (a 3D-rendered cum shot memorably so). But it’s neither scandalous nor exploitative, and is, for a Noé film, decidedly tame. Much of the driving thrust (pun intended) of Murphy and Electra’s powerful connection lies in their physical chemistry, and their lengthy sequences together—be they tender, or kinky, or aggressive—are simply illustrative of that element of their time together. Sure, it’s messy and transgressive, but that’s true of most sex outside the movies. Think of it as Annie Hall with money shots.