During the heyday of Japan’s “pink films” (cinematic porn) in the 1960s and ’70s, directors were given free rein over their pictures as long as they included at least one sex scene per reel. For the late Koji Wakamatsu, perhaps the genre’s most famous exponent, this was an opportunity to smuggle experimental techniques and revolutionary politics into what were meant to be straightforward smut films.
Wakamatsu is one of the filmmakers thanked in the end credits of “Love,” a spectacularly explicit romantic drama by the French-Argentine auteur Gaspar Noe. It’s a hat-tip from one provocateur to another: When Noe’s movie screened out of competition at Cannes Film Festival last year, the furor almost rivaled the one that greeted Wakamatsu’s “Secrets Behind the Wall” at the Berlinale in 1965.
The conversations surrounding “Love” were rather less high-minded, though. Audiences at Cannes were less interested in discussing the politics of Noe’s opus than the “ick” factor of its triumphant money shot: an aerial view of an ejaculating penis filmed in stereoscopic 3-D.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||135 minutes|
The visceral impact of this (ahem) explosive sequence has been significantly tamed in the Japanese cut of “Love,” of course. Cinematic shagging has come a long way since the ’60s, but Japan’s censorship rules haven’t. Much like Lars von Trier’s eye-popping “Nymphomaniac” series, the sex scenes in “Love” — most of them unsimulated — have been blurred to spare local audiences the discomfort of all that hair and throbbing gristle.
The pink directors of old found ways to accommodate these restrictions, artfully constructing shots to reveal everything except the prohibited pudenda. Noe’s deliberate act of full-frontal exposure is simply bowdlerized. “Love” in Japan is so far removed from the original that it’s practically a different film.
It’s worth pondering for a moment how the borders of obscenity are drawn. Noe’s best-known movie, “Irreversible,” is notorious for a grueling nine-minute rape sequence, but its most indelible image was of a character having his face pulped with a fire extinguisher. That scene got past the censors when the film was released here, yet the untrimmed pubic hair on display in “Love” was apparently too risque.
This is doubly unfortunate because, as cinematic depictions of sex go, Noe’s are high-quality stuff. Following the example of Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Color,” he uses the intimacy of intercourse to provide a candid window into his characters’ relationships. Many of the sex scenes are shot from a bird’s-eye view — a rejection of the “male gaze” that’s so prevalent in modern movies, adult or otherwise. Mutual pleasure is consistently emphasized; the lighting is gorgeous. It is almost wholesome.
It’s too bad that the film’s performance outside the bedroom is so unconvincing: the acting is dodgy, the storytelling is limp. Noe’s characters only come alive when they’re copulating, which may be intentional, but doesn’t make for great viewing. Even the film’s navel-gazing protagonist, Murphy (Karl Glusman), seems wise to this: “I’m just a dick. A dick has no brain.” It’s a fair assessment.
Murphy spends most of the film mourning the fact that he’s now raising a lovechild with a woman he detests, rather than having steamy sex with his ex-girlfriend, a manic junkie dream girl with the porn-worthy name of Electra (Aomi Muyock). Maybe because he’s a guy, his memories of her consist chiefly of drugs, arguments and sex — lots of sex.
Occasionally, “Love” descends into smug jokiness. We learn that Murphy named his lovechild Gaspar, while Electra’s former boyfriend is called Noe, a role the director plays himself, under the anagrammatic pseudonym Aron Pages, and I couldn’t tell if he was expecting a pat on the head or a hand job for being so droll.
But maybe I’m thinking too much. For a film that tries so hard to portray good sex, “Love” ends up being more like the bad kind: best experienced drunk.