Love (2015)

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three star

Browsing through John Waters’s Top Films of 2015 list (which included personal favorites Tangerine & The Diary of a Teenage Girl! whoo!), I was reminded of a film I was once mildly interested in, but had since completely forgotten: Gaspar Noé‘s Love. I’m not typically a fan of Noé‘s work. His provocateur tendency for shock value & Max Landis-levels of insufferable public persona usually keep me away from rushing to check out his work. Waters has a way of getting me to scope properties far outside my comfort zone, though (Alvin & The Chipmunks: Road Chip comes to mind). His blurb for Love made the film feel near impossible to resist: “The first Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival to show hard-core heterosexual rimming—in 3-D, no less. Thank God for Gaspar Noé.” With a byline like that from The Pope of Trash himself, I figured Love was worth a gander no matter how little patience I have for Noé’s personality.

Love is an erotic drama featuring not one, but two overriding gimmicks: 3D & unsimulated sex. Whether the film is a heartfelt indie drama that approaches high art in its fearless depiction of human sexuality or a well-manicured HD porno with a nice soundtrack is mostly up to the audience. Director Gaspar Noé certainly didn’t distance himself from the porno accusation. He was quoted before the film’s release as saying, “With my next film I hope guys will have erections and girls will get wet.” Sounds like porn to me. In modern film naked breasts are plentiful, but erect penises are . . . hard to come by. Whether or not Noé is aiming for pure shock value, you have to admit that there’s something unique about an art house drama that not only starts with an unflinching depiction of mutual masturbation in its very first frame, but also features an erect penis twice ejaculating directly onto the camera lens (“in 3-D no less!”). However, it’s difficult to claim that the film purely exists for titillation. Only 15 or so minutes of the film’s 135 minute runtime are hardcore sex (though those 15 minutes obviously make a massive impact) and the drama that surrounds that pornographic material is far too sad to be sexually stimulating. The truth is, of course, that Love exists somewhere between those two extremes, high art & cheap porn, and that push & pull is partly what makes the film an interesting work.

The trouble with Love, unfortunately, is that its central drama isn’t nearly as engaging as its hardcore 3D sex gimmick. Noé positions himself as something of an indie circuit carnie huckster here: he promises the greatest show on Earth with a cavalcade of fleshy delights, but once you’re in the tent he has already separated you from your dollars & has very little pressure to deliver the goods. Our fearless protagonist in this particular 3D sex circus is a selfish asshole of a film student emotionally stuck between two women he doesn’t deserve: the mother of his child & an ex-girlfriend he cheated on to produce that child. When he discovers that his ex (who has a history of self harm & substance abuse) has been missing for months, he takes a drug-addled trip down memory lane, ignoring his current family unit so that he can mentally relive his glory days of vicious break-ups, drug-fueled arguments, and, of course, rampant forays into sexual bliss & discord that he experienced with the one who got away. He imagines that his life would’ve been better if he never split with his now-missing ex, but never takes personal responsibility for how shitty things turned out, when it was most certainly his fault. Worse, his disregard & negativity towards his current relationship shows the pattern repeating itself and when the mother of his child spits “Take care of your past while I take care of your future” it’s all too apparent where their own romantic bond is heading. The sad thing is that he’ll probably regret that break as well & find anyone but he person responsible, himself, to blame for it. His negativity & selfishness are purely toxic. God help anyone who loves him.

It’s just as difficult to pinpoint exactly how you’re supposed to feel about Love‘s protagonist as it is to decide where the film falls on the art/pornography divide. He’s a selfish ass, prone to sexist remarks like “Living with a woman’s like sharing bed with the CIA” or calling the supposed love of his life variations of “whore”, “cunt”, “bitch”, etc. He also uses transphobic language in a scene that felt like it would’ve been uncomfortable as far back as the 90s, but even Noé himself has referred to the actress in that scene as a “tranny” in his interviews. Gaspar Noé aligns himself so closely with the protagonist that it’s impossible to separate them. Murphy is an idealist film student who wants “to make movies out of blood, sperm, and tears” & “make a movie that depicts sentimental sensuality.” I’m not sure Love accomplishes either of those goals (except maybe the part about the semen), but those sentiments really do feel like a mission statement directly from the horse’s mouth. The question is if Noé is living out his own romantic bitterness on screen here or skewering himself for indulging in that bitterness & self-absorption in the first place. I don’t have an answer,but I will say that this aspect of the film isn’t nearly as interesting as its salacious carnie gimmickry. Its story is pitifully thin, drawn out, and overlong. No matter what Noé was trying to say with his romantic navel-gazing, what he ended up proving was that the least interesting thing about Gaspar Noé films is Gaspar Noé himself.

By all means, Love shouldn’t be a likeable film. Its director is something of a self-indulgent ass. Its acting isn’t anything special, which is a major problem for a romantic drama built on emotional performance. Its dialogue can be laughably awful, especially in Murphy’s internal monologues that include statements like “I’m a loser. Yeah, just a dick. A Dick only has one purpose: to fuck. And I fucked it all up.” Ugh. Its electric guitar solo soundtrack often spoils the mood of its erotic moments with unbearable cheese. Themes are drilled home in obvious, self-congratulatory ways, such as when a title card explains the definition of Murphy’s Law (because the protagonist’s name is Murphy! get it?!). Still, Noé sets this paper thin, self-indulgent narrative to an interesting enough visual language that it’s impossible to brush it off entirely as an empty exercise. Beds are colorful voids playfully shot form above as the hardcore sex sessions they host play out in a frank, striking manner. The film’s drug use isn’t particularly interesting by its mere existence, but they do lead to interesting psychedelic images made of flashing lights & 3D ejaculate that afford the film a unique look. The same dream logic of haunting memories that elevated the relatively week narrative of the VHS slasher Sorority House Massacre work their wonders here in an interesting way as well. A tour through a European swinger’s club is treated with the same sex  church reverence as the gorgeous Atlanta strip club sequence of Magic Mike XXL. The stark, alternating lights of dance clubs & bedrooms can be downright hypnotic. Love might be riding on the novelty of its hedonistic 3D sex gimmick, but it does it well enough not to lose your attention before the credits roll.

If Gaspar Noé was trying to break any special sort of ground here, I don’t believe he accomplished his goal. Much like history’s first 3D feature film, Bwana Devil, Love talks a big game about delivering a one of a kind spectacle, but ultimately ends up feeling like so, so many works that came before it . . . just in 3D. I’m not sure, for instance, that the world needed another indie drama about how monogamous jealousy & fear of polygamy can ruin long-term relationships. That story’s been told before with much more interesting nuance in its character & narrative beats. As far as the hardcore, unsimulated sex goes, 2014’s French sex thriller Stranger by the Lake indulged in the same pornographic impulses, but had a lot more to say about the push & pull between lust & companionship. I honestly believe that John Waters has made the best case for Love’s position as a groundbreaking work of cinema. It truly is “The first Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival to show hard-core heterosexual rimming—in 3-D.” That much is true (although it’s possible Mr. Waters mistook some of the film’s cunnilingus for rimming). Even if that’s all the film accomplished I still enjoyed moments where it desperately reached for more, Gaspar Noé‘s obnoxious personality notwithstanding.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 6: Bwana Devil (1952)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Bwana Devil (1952) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 28 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recounts a small list of films he remembers seeing at the cinema with his parents. The titles included A Day at the Races, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and the world’s first 3D feature, Bwana Devil. He explains that the list is so short because his Aunt Martha was more often the one who would take him to see movies as a child.

What Ebert had to say in his review: Roger never reviewed the film officially, but he does recount seeing it in a blog post in which he slams the resurgence of 3D, a format he generally found distasteful. He said, “Faithful readers will know about my disenchantment with 3-D. My dad took me to see the first 3-D movie, Arch Oboler’s ‘Bwana Devil,’ in 1952. Lots of spears thrown at the audience. Since then I have been attacked by arrows, fists, eels, human livers, and naked legs. I have seen one 3-D process that works, the IMAX process that uses $200 wrap-around glasses with built-in stereo. Apparently that process has been shelved, and we are back to disposable stereoscopic lenses, essentially the same method used in 1952.”

Some films are interesting only in their historical, cultural relevance. Think, for instance, of James Cameron’s lucrative, yet oddly forgettable eco-minded blockbuster Avatar. When Avatar was released it was a wildly successful film, mostly because it was sold as the first major advancement in the IMAX 3D format. That relevant-today-forgotten-tomorrow aspect of Avatar actually has a rich history in 3D’s storied past, apparently. For instance, the first full-length feature film ever released in 3D (and in color no less!) is a forgotten trifle named Bwana Devil, a film only significant for its “Natural Vision” visual gimmick. In a time when there was a palpable fear that television was going to destroy movie ticket sales, gimmicks like 3D were thought to be cinema’s potential savior. Cheaper than formats like Cinerama & Cinemascope that required curved screens & multiple projectors, 3D promised to be the most viable option for keeping movie ticket sales alive & thriving. It seems that in the rush to be the first film to deliver that medium historically, Bwana Devil forgot to put together anything resembling basic filmmaking competence. “Shameless cash grab” is an accusation that gets thrown around fairly often in film criticism, but Bwana Devil wears that distinction proudly on its sleeve.

Reportedly filmed in the Belgian Congo, Kenya, Uganda, and California, Bwana Devil is a pitiful mishmash of stock footage & shoddy narrative connective tissue that makes Ed Wood look like an editing room genius. Depicting the construction of Africa’s first cross-continental railroad, Bwana Devil mimics the grand scale of Africa-set Hollywood epics, but without the funding or talent required to match its oversized ambitions. The main conflict of its plot concerns a series of man-eating lion attacks that delay the railroad’s construction. The story that surrounds the attacks & the hunters determined to stop “these infernal devils” is, honestly, too dull to bother describing here.The visual effect of these attacks is achieved through a mix of trained lion footage & quick shots of lion puppets, which might be the only technique in the film that sorta works. All other non-lion nature footage is achieved by projecting actors filmed in California on top of director/producer Arch Oboler’s vacation footage shot while on safari with his wife in Africa. The safari footage is so poorly lit & grainy that the mix is more of an abomination than a mere distraction. Although the disparity in film quality is laughable, it’s not laughable enough to make Bwana Devil recommendable as so-bad-it’s good camp fest. It is, in every way, a forgettable picture.

Roger Ebert was very vocal about his distaste for 3D cinema as a medium. His biggest gripe was that the format often darkened colors in projections to a distracting degree. Bwana Devil is often cited as a critical failure & an audience favorite, but I think audiences who enjoyed the film more likely enjoyed its novelty more than its content. The most common complaint about Bwana Devil at the time of its release, from audiences & critics alike, echoed Ebert’s exact concerns: that the process rendered the film too dark when viewed through the specialty glasses required to created the 3D effect. Bwana Devil’s advertising famously promised “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!”, but the most visually striking image the film produced was the look of its 1950s audience watching it in the theaters. Consider the iconic LIFE Magazine image of the Bwana Devil audience donning their 3D glasses & enjoying the film’s novelty. There’s far more historical significance & interesting visual composition in that single still image than there is in the entirety of Bwana Devil‘s entire 79 minute runtime.

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I don’t fully agree with Ebert’s assessment that 3D is an entirely empty gimmick, a needless distraction. I’ve had plenty of fun experiences watching loud, vibrant action movies in 3D that have made pretty great use of the format. Bwana Devil, however, is a clear example of 3D done wrong. It’s an empty exercise that relies entirely on its own novelty for entertainment value. It’s a little sad that Ebert’s first 3D experience was one of the last ones he remembered somewhat fondly (if not only because he experienced the novelty with his father), but it’s also a little funny that a film so shoddily slapped together provided that positive memory.

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Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (1.5/5, 30%)

onehalfstar

Next Lesson: (1963)

-Brandon Ledet