Director Gaspar Noé Discusses His Erotic 3-D Film, 'Love'

From left, cast member Aomi Muyock, director Gaspar Noé and cast members Klara Kristin and Karl Glusman pose on the red carpet for the Cannes Film Festival screening of “Love.” Eric Gaillard/Reuters

The new film Love opens on a pair of reclining nude figures, a man and a woman. In a single unbroken take, the woman manually and meticulously brings her partner to sexual completion in full view of the audience. The camera sits patiently and observes the couple as they go through their carnal ritual, exerting no influence of its own on the images on screen.

None of this has been achieved through visual trickery. It's all bona fide; that's her breast, not a body double's. That's his reproductive material too. Their names are Murphy (Karl Glusman) and Electra (Aomi Muyock), and over the course of the film that follows, they engage in every sex act under the sun (and in three glorious dimensions). They do so without shyness or shame, indulging in a smorgasbord of eroticism that shatters taboos too numerous and graphic to specifically name here. The commitment to nakedness both literal and figurative even extends to the film's three promotional posters, which baldly depict three mouths frenching one another between threads of saliva, the outline of a woman's lower extremities as seen through white cotton, and a phallus ejaculating onto a breast, respectively (link NSFW).

The film's director, incorrigible Argentine Gaspar Noé, does not consider any of this salacious. "It's not at all [pornographic]," Noé tells Newsweek during a sit-down at last month's Toronto International Film Festival. "My movie tries to be honest. It's a movie that wants to depict love and passion as me or my friends have experienced it. It's not autobiographical, but it's 'What can I do that's close to the essence of life?' It's a movie maybe done for a young-adult audience, but it's not even an adult movie."

Noé is not some scuzzball trying to legitimize his own pursuit of randy kicks under the dubious banner of capital-A Art, either. Low-rent smut films don't typically premiere to packed houses at the Cannes Film Festival, as Love did this past May. (Not unlike Noé's last Cannes debut, 2009's unveiling of the indescribable Enter the Void, the screening ended with a mixture of boos and standing ovations.)

Spending even a moment in Noé's presence confirms that he's got only the purest intentions, his soft-spoken tones conveying absolute sincerity. The debate over what does or doesn't constitute pornography can go on until the cows come home, but one thing that's for certain is that Noé doesn't believe himself to be a peddler of base pleasures.

"I know what the movie's about," Noé says. "It's exactly as I wanted it. It mostly surprised me because I expected all the reactions I had with my previous movies. But with this one, I never thought that sexuality was such a burning subject. We're living in a society that's more open than all the religious societies around, but when it comes to the imitation of sexuality, the Western world—not only America but also Europe—it is castrating."

He continues, "Although the sexual liberation happened in the '70s, the images of joyful sex and of carnal love are more and more rare. Even the fact that there are no more erotic magazines—you go to any magazine store and you have female magazines, sports magazines, gun magazines, political magazines and no erotic magazines anymore. If you want to see an erotic movie, they don't exist anymore. The only erotic images you have are what any kid can find on Google, which are so mechanical and not emotional. The essence of life and of desire is hidden."

The long stretches of Love that do not involve two or more characters going to town on one another certainly support his reading of the film. The mesmerizingly intense sex sequences punctuate interludes of equally intense melancholy and tender despair that would be too punishing for anyone looking for simple sexual excitement. After he hears she's gone missing, Murphy spends the duration of the picture thinking back on his lost love with Electra and wondering what could've been. Love is, as the title might suggest, a love story, but in Noé's estimation that means it also must necessarily be a hate story—and beyond all that, a sex story.

"It's a melancholic drama portraying lost love, and in its essence, love is mostly carnal," Noé says. "When you fall in love, you can get into these hard-core addictions that turn you crazy and make you feel like you've got tunnel vision. You get stoned by love. And then you don't just get addicted to a person who you've designated as your object of desire; you get addicted to the fact of being in that mental state. I've heard people walking out of the movie and saying, 'Oh, I did not get aroused by that movie. I felt like crying.'"

That comment stands in sharp contrast with a much-circulated quote that Noé dropped in Marfa Journal shortly after the film had been confirmed for the Cannes programming slate, in which he claimed, "With my next film, I hope guys will have erections and girls will get wet." Audiences can go right ahead and write that off as carnival barking. Noé's well aware of what does and does not generate interest in a foreign art film, and so he's assured his perpetual relevance by fashioning himself as filmmaking's premiere provocateur.

Wherever Noe's name appears, "enfant terrible" can't be far behind. His 2002 film Irreversible scandalized audiences with a brutal, multiple-minute rape scene of international starlet Monica Bellucci, and Enter the Void's hallucinatory vision of the afterlife rendered it an immediate cult object. Directing a 3-D porno sounds like something a filmmaker seized by the spirit of punkish anti-authoritarianism might do, but at the core of all Noé's films beats a wounded heart.

Noé's not especially concerned about people who might dismiss his film as rabble-rousing for its own sake—or worse, plain old bad taste. In his words, "good taste can become boring. Sometimes there is very good taste in bad taste."

He knows full well that his latest work was destined to raise some eyebrows (and other parts) and invites the questions, satisfied that his narrative of unflinching emotional honesty draws more attention that way. As he tells it, sex and particularly non-simulated sex—the tedium, the awkwardness, the freedom to lose sight of yourself—are a crucial and universal component of life. He cites the lesbian romance Blue Is the Warmest Color, another Cannes export boasting real live sexuality, as the last film that truly and profoundly moved him. It's easy to see that film's influence on Love, not just in the unsimulated coitus but in the wide range of soul-searing passions that fuel it. Noé's in the business of marketing the truth, uncensored and fully exposed, and he won't let a few accusations of perversion stop him anytime soon.

"It's not even about showing images that are more frontal or more explicit," Noé says. "I don't know if I achieve it well—I tried to reproduce the stream of memory by not putting the old memories in a chronological order. It becomes a bit puzzling, but it's closer to the experience of life than what I see in other directors' movies."