Richard Brody once wrote that he prefers to sit in the front row at the movies because “sitting up close makes the complexity and diversity of each image a physical reality.” I relate to his compulsion, but Brody’s logic presupposes that all images are created equal—that they’re all inherently complex. In terms of intricacy, for example, Alex Ross Perry’s virtuosity as a filmmaker is as varied as Gaspar Noé’s is one-note. Watch Queen of Earth in the front row and its sensually abstract charting of the boundaries of perception may feel so dense as to seem dangerous to even ponder. Conversely, Noé’s films seek to impact the consciousness with such literal and antagonistic modes of articulation as to actively impede contemplation.
To be fair, the enfant terrible seems aware of his brand of cinema as a kind of virtual repellent, and with his new film, Love, he metatextually literalizes his desire to fuck with audiences with a shot of an erect cock splooging directly at the camera. That the film is intended to be projected in 3D, meaning that you, like me, may opt to witness this cumshot far from the theater’s front row, is ultimately beside the point, as one’s proximity to the screen doesn’t alter Love’s significance as the cine-equivalent of clickbait.
If Enter the Void’s at once dazzling and exhausting synthesizing of image and sound worked to convey its main character’s perpetual sense of living outside his own body, Love attempts an inverse. In the film’s opening scene, Murphy (Karl Glusman), wakes up and announces, via voiceover, “I wish I didn’t exist right now.” His ex-girlfriend and love of his life, Electra (Aomi Muyock), has gone missing, and the news knocks him into a state of discombobulation that perfectly aligns with the film’s artfully comatose style.
Murphy says he’s stuck inside his head, and the audience’s own sense of being in the vicariously conjured confines of his boxed-in existence is amplified by Noé’s compositions: As Murphy is often framed within doorways, the film’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio feels in constant threat of collapsing upon itself. Because its cuts to black are so abundant and its graphic matches work to erode any sense of time, Love evokes a slipstream illuminated onto the screen by a slide projector. As such, the willfully torturous experience of watching the film can be likened to sifting through a friend’s vacation pictures—an act that often necessitates surrendering one’s sense of will.
Love also suggests the perverse, almost comical, flipside of Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. Electra and Murphy, as well as Omi (Klara Kristin), the woman he’s living with at the start of the film and his child’s mother, are constrained by Noé’s predetermined vision of how people talk, fight, and fuck, only here the talk is stupid, the fighting violent, and the sex unsimulated. One could justify Love’s jejeuneness, much of it supplied by Murphy’s soporific ramblings about such things as his fat, single-minded dick, his fear that his son will turn out gay, and women being not unlike C.I.A. agents, as an ideology of infatuation.
Noé, you could say, is trying to represent on screen his nostalgia for the greasy uninhibitedness of being young and having few cares in the world beyond fucking. But, then, there are too many signs pointing to the fact that the characters’ infatuations are simply Noé’s own, beginning with the Birth of a Nation and Salò posters on Murphy’s bedroom wall. This is narcissistic self-absorption writ large, and while Noé amusingly admits as much (as in the 2001-loving Murphy wanting to name his child Gaspar), the lack of self-investigation merely situates the film as a libidinal advertisement for a tantrum-prone filmmaker’s delayed adulthood.