In case you didn’t already know, Gaspar Noé is keen on outraging audiences, from the brutal rape and graphic murder portrayed in Irréversible, his breakout film, to the up-close-and-too-personal-for-some depiction of a penetration, as well as an abortion, in Enter the Void. His latest effort, Love, is considerably—perhaps deliberately—less shocking. The film depicts a romantic triangle that develops between Murphy (Karl Glusman), a young American (and Noé stand-in) living in Paris, his ex-girlfriend, Electra (Aomi Muyock), and his current partner, Omi (Klara Kristin). Throughout the film, Noé uses one prickly, beyond-sexually-charged situation after another to tease out issues of jealousy, trust, and truth as Murphy grapples with his obsessive desire for Electra and his current unhappiness with Omi. The film undoubtedly leaves little to the imagination, which is precisely Noé’s agenda as a provocateur: to be as in-your-face—cheap, scary, sexual, or otherwise—as possible. During a pit stop at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival, Noé sat down to discuss with me the making of Love, masturbation, playing with spectators in three dimensions, and what the different permutations of sex in the film may have to say about more than just his characters.
You like to stimulate and provoke. Watching Murphy and Electra masturbating each other in the opening scene is kind of like foreplay.
Masturbation is one of the multiple games a loving girl and boy can play with each other. I don’t see the difference between cunnilingus or a blowjob or masturbation or frontal sex. It’s just, when you love someone, you play all these games. That opening scene was supposed to be in the middle of the movie, but I liked it so much that I kept the whole two minutes of it and moved it to the beginning. It made much more sense there. Instead of starting the film with Murphy waking up from the phone ringing, he’s dreaming of his past before the phone rings. It was also a way of saying, “You heard what the movie is going to be about, so let’s start strongly.” I don’t know if it gets you aroused. It could arouse the audience if I hadn’t put a sentimental melody on top of it. You’re used to seeing images of people having sex in ’70s films with cheap disco music on top of them. The fact that I use classical music makes things more loving.
Murphy describes wanting to make a “sentimental sex film,” which I assume was your own intention with Love. For you, what makes an erotic film “sentimental?”
I watched The Dreamers and I thought Bertolucci was still censoring himself, maybe for commercial reasons. But I like that movie, especially for all the sexual scenes. When it happens in real life, usually sex is very simple. You follow your instincts and then things happen one way or the other. I don’t understand why this aspect of sex in people’s lives is so rarely portrayed in mainstream movies. So many films have people killing each other, cannibalism, monsters, bank robbers, all those things that rarely happen in people’s lives. But something that’s most relatable, like a love story of this kind, is always portrayed in a way that isn’t natural. When you talk about love in movies, and the couple goes to bed, the door closes, and you don’t get to see the best part. You see them the next day having coffee. When people are attracted to each other, it’s natural to procreate or simulate the act of procreation. It’s a simple, happy, positive thing. When it comes to the portrayal of this act, people start shaking. It’s easier to show murder in a film and that doesn’t disturb anyone. I’ve had some reactions that asked, “Are we in the 19th century…in Victorian times?” Why are people scared of sex, which is as natural as breathing or swimming?
What made you decide to shoot the film in English and in 3D, and what kind of challenges did that create?
The decision to shoot in English came first. French isn’t my native language. I was born in Argentina. My parents moved to America, then they went back to Argentina. When I started speaking, I was speaking English at school and Spanish at home. I wanted to shoot the film in Paris, which is where I live, so I could produce the film and manage the shooting easier. English is the Esperanto of the Western world. Most people speak English, so I wanted the movie to have a wider release, and not put on the “foreign” shelf in most countries. And in 3D, the subtitles are really annoying—letters floating between you and the space that’s supposed to be real. When I was casting guys, I looked at English, Irish, Canadian, and American guys, and the best actor I found to play the part ended up being American. He could have been South African.
About the 3D, I like the fact that when you see a 3D movie, it’s like playing a game with the spectator: You tell people to put the glasses on and that they’re going to see something more real than a regular movie. Also, three years ago, I bought a home-video 3D camera. I was filming many things and they were shaky on a handheld camera, so I wanted to do a film in 3D with a tripod or a crane with slow movements so as not to create nausea. A month before shooting I ran into a guy who told me there were subsidies from the French government to make 3D movies, and they confirmed that I would have the money to rent the 3D camera. I enjoyed 3D because it was more intimate, and it allowed me to make a richer movie, in cinemascope, in English, and in 3D.
How did you first conceive Murphy?
Murphy is an extension of myself. It’s not autobiographical, but I relate to him because I’ve been through similar experiences in my life. Or my friends have. He’s like my younger brother.