Image: Illustration by Greta Langenberg
Amidst quick glimpses of the Love Hotel and passionate instrumental ballads, 3D sex scenes – featuring real actors having real intercourse – befall the audience in Gaspar Noé’s latest masterpiece: Love.
Love follows the rise and fall of the dynamic relationship between an unlikely couple: free-spirited nympho Electra (played by Aomi Muyock) and American expat filmmaker Murphy (played by Karl Glusman). Over the course of the film, including a move to Paris, an affair with their sixteen-year-old neighbor, and their eventual, heart-wrenching split, the actors bring a reality and personality to this whimsical, millennial relationship. Amidst the crests and troughs of the plot, Electra and John’s sexual relationship is poured onto the big screen.
Stark, unabashed sex projected on the big screen is a revolutionary concept with massive potential. Repeated in mainstream cinema, this can normalize sex through a bolder, more honest representation of the modern relationship archetype.
Although seemingly a shocking, modern move for a mainstream director, depicting real sex in cinema first appeared in the 1950s.
In the 1951 “Miracle Decision,” the Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures fall under the same umbrella as newspapers and magazines, and therefore categorically qualify for complete freedom of speech. Geoffrey Shurlock, head of the MPAA, sought to lure moviegoers with more adult content. A series of Supreme Court rulings around the same time legalized hard core pornography. The 1972 hardcore porno Deep Throat — filmed on handheld camera, with most of the tiny budget spent on recreational drugs for the stars– has allegedly amassed nearly the largest gross capital in movie history. Yet the advent of mainstream pornographic film was short-lived. An informal ban on pornographic films began when backlash from families, scandalized by X-rated advertisements, led to the invention of a ratings system. This differentiated X-rated films as depicting depicting violence and sex, and there’s been a taboo on exhibiting real sex in mainstream cinema ever since.
Indeed, Love is the easiest of Noe’s films to watch, considering the history of drug abuse and sexual violence in his other works. Electra and Murphy flow seamlessly from their blankets to the outside world and back again, equally comfortable having sex in public under stadiums and in private at home. These sex scenes were not choreographed, and the tense peaks and climaxes are warmly felt by the audience. In Noé’s director’s statement, he describes a desire to fully depict a young couple’s passion, marked by sex scenes “transcending the ridiculous division that dictates no normal film can contain overtly erotic scenes, even though everyone loves to make love.” Noé and acclaimed cinematographer Benoît Debie even created vivid 3D imagery in Cinemascope for the ultimate realistic experience.
The idea of the emotional power of porn may sound ostentatious, but after Noe’s 135-minute sequence, the audience feels moved and drained by this jaded relationship.
At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, hundreds swarmed the theater to watch this 3D phenomenon, and left silently to digest the complicated emotions of what they had just witnessed.
This illustrates the effect of real sex in cinema: real empathy swells up as we delve into the power dynamics of Electra and Murphy’s relationship.
Without a truthful sexual relationship at the core of the film, this would be a hollow testimony to their narrative. Their copious acts of sex, in different styles and settings, more accurately portrays their frank, adult relationship in which power hierarchies are influenced by their bedroom lives. Certain types of relationships revolve around their sex lives. This idea of telling romance through sex is a lost art thanks to modern prudishness and discomfort, but it is an art that could powerfully normalize sex as a natural part of everyone’s lives.
Love has shifted the dialogue surrounding sex in film, as influential news sources seem to be alarmed but appreciative of Noé’s stark jump into portraying reality.
Vice and The New York Times have taken to this revolutionary depiction, while publications such as The Washington Post have harshly rejected this piece. Clearly, some critics were untouched by the camerawork and disliked the movie’s preference for showing more explicit sex over linguistic emotional expression. This yields the question: should explicit sex become more transparent in mainstream cinema?
For Gaspar Noé, the answer is yes.
Mainstream film should become more receptive to depictions of real sex. This can normalize sex and revitalize the millennial relationship archetype to accurately represent modern couples.
As Gaspar Noé told Vanity Fair, “Life is erotic.”