On Gaspar Noe’s Love

Gaspar Noé first rose to prominence in the early 2000s as European art house cinema’s equivalent of an online edge lord.  Noé’s first film (Seul Contre Tous) follows the descent of an unemployed horse butcher from resentful small town failure to violently-abusive sexual predator. At the time, the film’s myriad transgressions were electrifying but in hindsight they feel almost like an act of poisonous introspective mockery: A ‘fuck you’ to the fact that all you have to say is “fuck you”.

Noé’s second film (Irreversible), though no less drenched in the petty bigotries of the privilege, felt a good deal more sophisticated simply by virtue of having its transgressive imagery sit in some kind of relationship with imagery that was both significantly lighter and more pleasant to look at. Add to this some effective cinematography, an inverted narrative structure, a talented cast playing simple but well-drawn characters, and it is clear why the film did well and remains somewhat memorable.

Despite arriving seven years later, Noé’s third film (Enter the Void) felt very much like more of the same. The lurching camera movements and troglodytic lighting of Irreversible had returned, as had the squalid settings and disjointed temporality, but the humanity and psychological clarity of Irreversible were conspicuously absent resulting in a film dominated by familiar visuals and grand but poorly-integrated thematic gestures that really amounted to little more than having Noé repeatedly point at the Tibetan Book of the Dead and winking.

Critically savaged upon release and swiftly forgotten, Noé’s fourth film Love is to Enter the Void what Irreversible was to Seul Contre Tous: A human story successfully wedded to a decidedly inhuman aesthetic.

A vision not just of dejection, But also solitude

The film opens with the first of several censor-baiting scenes of graphic human sexuality. Lying in the sort of position that simply does not make sense without the presence of an audience, two actors manually stimulate each other to the point of orgasm before we even learn the names of their characters. The cock, it turns out, belongs to an American named Murphy who moves to Paris in order to attend film school. While there, he enters into a relationship with a Parisian artist named Electra. Much like Irreversible and Enter the Void, Love is a story told out of chronological order meaning that the film moves between different timeframes featuring:

  • A clean-shaven Murphy who cannot believe his luck at managing to hook up with a glamorous and adventurous young artist.
  • A scruffy-looking Murphy who is powerless to prevent his once-wonderful relationship turning to absolute shit.
  • A depressed and podgy-looking Murphy who loathes his partner and desperately misses his ex-girlfriend.
These recurring visual motifs not only invite us to revisit changing emotional spaces, but also to note how Murphy’s emotional life becomes increasingly complex as the film progresses.

I decided to write about this film here because it strikes me as an excellent example of a complex psychological haunting. The haunting in question takes place on two different levels as the film’s plot begins at the end of the story with Electra’s mother unexpectedly reaching out to Murphy and announcing to him that Electra has disappeared. Already depressed and unhappy with his current relationship, Murphy’s growing obsession with the past becomes so acute that he winds up taking opium in an effort to reconnect with his past and deepen his already self-destructive and obsessive rehashing of the past.

Murphy’s use of drugs is somewhat significant as the film’s non-traditional structure serves to put past and present on an equal ontological footing. In other words, rather than being a film set in the present but with frequent flashbacks allowing us to visit the past, the film’s structure ensures that the audience experience Murphy’s past and present in exactly the same way. Once we do away with the idea that the present is somehow more real than the past, we can view Murphy’s actions as an act of conjuration… he is not just getting high and thinking about his ex, he is enacting a ritual that makes her just as real and tangible as the woman he is currently living with. It isn’t cum that Murphy’s blasting in the opening scene… it’s ectoplasm!

About halfway through the film, we are shown the couple’s first meeting and while Electra is quite quiet, Murphy talks passionately about wanting to make films out of blood, tears, and sperm. The film’s internal chronology is never entirely clear, but one interpretation of the story is that Murphy first hooked up with Electra by laying claim to an identity that he was psychologically incapable of inhabiting.

At some point after the couple’s initial meeting, they begin searching for ways to make their sex life more interesting. In some cases, this involves fucking under the influence of a drug, in other cases it involves experimenting with different sexual partners. At first, this seems to work out quite nicely as it means that Murphy gets to have a nice, consensual and emotionally healthy threesome with his girlfriend and his equally-glamourous next-door neighbour. However, as lovely as the threesome seems, it also marks a turning point in the relationship as that particular journey winds up including a jealousy-inducing visit to a bleakly brutalist swinger’s club and then to an aborted threesome with a transwoman that leaves a hopelessly-overwhelmed Murphy weeping in the shower.

The film’s non-traditional narrative does a surprisingly good job at occluding cause and effect but one interpretation of the events on screen is that Electra’s greater appetite for experimentation leads to Murphy feeling both jealous and insecure. Desperate to maintain both his masculinity and his self-image as a transgressive libertine, Murphy goes behind Electra’s back to sleep with the neighbour resulting in her pregnancy and a complete collapse of trust in the relationship. Angry, wounded, and completely unwilling to either talk through their problems or let the relationship die, the pair’s consumption of alcohol and narcotics increases steadily resulting not only in tit-for-tat infidelities but also screaming matches so intense that the police wind up having to repeatedly separate the couple.

Thus, Murphy is haunted by Electra not only because she was the one-who-got-away, or because he tries to summon her spirit, but also because his insecurity-fuelled infidelities played an important role in her acquiring the pattern of drug-consumption that would ultimately lead to her disappearance and potential death.

The second level of the haunting becomes evident once you embrace Noé’s tendency to present the lives of two women as merely canvases upon which to paint the implosion of a man’s identity. Indeed, Love is first and foremost a film about a man who fails to live up to his own bullshit. When Murphy first meets Electra, he presents himself as an artist desperate to transcend the limits of bourgeois morality and yet some of the first dialogue in the film involves Murphy grumbling about how much he hates his partner and how much he loves his kid: An almost stereotypically failed relationship, a living quintessence of bourgeois malaise.

It is telling that – with the notable exception of their initial meeting – all of the memories conjured by Murphy involve either sex or yelling. In other words, when Murphy looks back at his once-perfect relationship, he struggles to think of Electra as anything other than as a font for his own desire and anger. We never learn about the kind of art that Electra produced, we never learn about what brought her joy, we only learn about the feelings she evoked in Murphy.

Murphy is not haunted by the perfect woman who escaped his grasp, but rather by the fact that he failed to live up to his adopted image as a radically transgressive bohemian artist. For Murphy, Electra does not so much represent love as she does his own failure to embody the values he claimed to profess. Electra embraced the values of bohemian transgression, she experimented with art, sex, and drugs but when offered the chance to live that lifestyle and embody those values, Murphy got jealous, scared, and insecure to the point where he actively and effectively sabotaged his own relationship and happiness. As much as the loss of Electra haunts Murphy, the strongest ghost in the film is that of the young man who wanted to be an artist. Murphy does not grieve for the happiness he shared with Electra, or even for Electra herself… he grieves for an identity he never had the wit, the courage, or the insight to embody in the first place.

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