The most shocking thing about Gaspar Noé's new film is it's not shocking. Yes, it has lots and lots of fucking, which is to be expected from Noé, but almost all the sex is conventional, which is not. There are a few sloppy handjobs, several dispassionate blowjobs, and some rough fingering. But there is nothing as challenging as fisting, as monstrous as DP, or as criminal as pedophilia (I do not count the scene with the trans person as provocative—it's pretty straightforward). The hottest sex scene in the movie is a basic ménage à trois (FFM) that goes on for a bit too long.
The visuals are neither strange nor uncanny, despite the 3-D, and the score is worse. The kind of classical music Noé has a taste for could advertise a luxury automobile or be found on a CD that promises to help overworked corporate types meditate. You do not leave this movie without hearing Erik Satie's "Gymnopédie No.1" twice.
Love opens with a naked couple pulling, rubbing, and groping each other. They are in bed. The moment is more serene than sexy. The man has a handsome cock. The woman is bushy. Sometimes he goes a little soft, but then she pulls and squeezes him until he is hard again. After the man comes on the woman's hand, the story begins.
The man, Murphy (Karl Glusman), is a film student, the woman, Electra (Aomi Muyock), a young artist. They met at a Parisian park and fell madly in love. However, he, an obnoxious American, turned out to be very possessive (he suspects Electra is fucking her ex, played by Noé), and she, a flaky Frenchwoman, turned out to be emotionally unstable and addicted to drugs. Their most intimate moments were spent in the bed and the bathroom of an apartment with lots of movie posters on the wall—Taxi Driver, Birth of a Nation, M, and so on. The American fears the nothingness of death; the Frenchwoman fears physical pain. They want to have a baby together because the meaning of fucking is reproduction, and reproduction is the meaning of life.
This was their paradise, and this is how it ended: One day, the couple met a young woman, Omi (Klara Kristin), who had just moved into the next-door apartment. Slim, blond, and pretty, Omi just happened to fit perfectly into a sexual fantasy Electra had once described to Murphy. The couple eventually invited her over, she accepted, and of course the three had sex. Electra's fantasy was fulfilled. A few days later, the American had sex with his horny neighbor without Electra. But while fucking her, the condom broke, and she got pregnant. Upon learning about the pregnancy, Electra loudly and violently broke up with the American. Expelled from their little Eden, Murphy moved in with Omi. In time, she became a nagging mother and he a bored father with a "dad bod."
Love is about the nature of love—how you discover it, how it fills you with joy, how it makes you go crazy and say impossible things, how it hurts when a relationship ends. According to Noé's philosophy, love is powerful but very limited and fragile. Love is not out in the world like clouds or grass or stars, as Christopher Nolan's Interstellar proposes, but ineffably human, an immaterial force that exists only between people. It is a shared world, more cultural than natural, and thus somewhat beside the point of life and its ultimate engine, sex. Murphy ends up having a child with the wrong person. One can wind up stuck in a house and a marriage and a family when what one really wants is love.
So why did the master of 21st-century transgressive French cinema make such a tame and sentimental film? I think it's because he had nowhere else to go after making three really great and extreme films. How do you follow the stories of a foul-mouthed horse butcher who kills his daughter (I Stand Alone), a man with a big nose who rapes a woman and gets away with it (Irreversible), and the ghost of a drug dealer who experiences fucking his sister (Enter the Void). What was Noé supposed to do next? Show the world that he is no sadist or misanthrope, but instead as sappy and soft as Douglas Sirk.
Maybe he thought this revelation would also be pretty damn shocking. Noé, José.