First things first: Yes, Gaspar Noé's arthouse sexbomb quite literally goes off in your face, with an ejaculation closeup 90 minutes in that might have you wiping off your 3-D glasses. You might think that's an impressive provocation, until you recall that every 12-year-old boy in America sees that same thing in private at least once a day.
Noé's other visions will be less familiar to that hand-in-pants audience: exquisite long-take shots of lovers stroking, sucking and bubbling over. The couplings have an artful intensity lacking in pornography, which favors athleticism and disconnectedness, and the lighting — well, the best thing in the movie is the look of it all, which in a tony sex flick counts for a lot.
Most of this is strictly hetero, boy's-eye stuff, as a succession of beautiful women have a toss with aspiring American filmmaker Murphy (Karl Glusman). Toward the end, a trans woman gets in on the action, but that quick scene, lit a lurid stoplight-red, seems crafted to demonstrate not that Murphy is open to suggestion but that he's spun out of control. As with the BDSM in that last overlong arthouse sexbomb, Nymphomaniac, anything Hef wasn't into in 1965 seems to skeeve out our daring filmmaker. (His earlier films, Enter the Void and Irreversible, are more challenging.)
What little story there is Noé has chopped into small bits and spread out sparingly, like a chef squeezing a feast from a meager pantry. Murphy is in love with young French artist Electra (Aomi Muyock) — in the excellent opening, we see them fondle each other to tender completion. The two invite neighbor Omi (Klara Kristin) into a threesome, and Murphy continues to see her on the sly, eventually getting her pregnant — and building a life with her, while Electra goes missing. The film is a heartsick portrayal of a man examining what he's done and what he's lost.
There's drug use and dustups and other lovers, too, plus an endless scene of Murphy shouting in the streets: “I'm the one who's hurting right now!” and “Open the door, you selfish cunt!” As in most arthouse sexbombs, the libertine impulses of the filmmaker get strangled by the narrative, which invariably turns on obsession, betrayal and generalized horribleness — the sex that audiences are paying to see ruins the characters' lives.
At least in Love the characters are getting off. See them spent and happy, on crimson linens, blowing smoke rings up at the camera. You probably won't care about them, feel for them or quite believe they could exist, but at least every moment of their lives is sumptuously composed. The cut after each shot is exaggerated, a full brief blackout, as if to leave behind any of Noé's images is itself a little death. The non-penetrative scenes are marvels, too, with strobing nightclub lights and journeys over and through city bridges and tunnels all reinforcing the film's fleshier themes.
Noé's homages and history-of-cinema jokes make it clear that all his steady, stately kink is designed to awe rather than to sweep us up. “I want to make movies out of blood, sperm and tears,” Murphy natters at one point, before dressing down his lover for never having seen 2001, a film not known for its sensual rawness. Noé cuts on occasion to a red bulb in closeup that, but for its blinking, might as well be the movies' most infamous computer. If you ever wondered what HAL might jerk off to, Love is for you.