Today at Cannes, I had an argument with my roommate over the film we'd just seen. That in itself was nothing new, but the content of our conflict was a little different this time.
"Jada," I asked her, "how many cum shots do you remember from that movie?"
She thought about it for a second before venturing an answer: "Two." I was surprised.
"There were at least three," I said. "Maybe even four. Let's count."
"Okay. Well, there was the one from the opening scene. And the one where he shoots straight at the camera."
"And then the other scene where he shoots straight at the camera."
"Huh. You're right. I guess there were at least three." It was settled. Not only did Gaspar Noé's Love contain a minimum of three cum shots — three more than in any other film you've seen in a theater this year, I'd wager — it was also the kind of movie where you could actually lose count.
This has been a rather chaste Cannes so far, but Noé can always be counted on to play the provocateur: His previous films, like Irreversible and Enter the Void, pushed nearly every cinematic envelope imaginable in their depictions of sex and violence. When Love opens, then, with Murphy (Karl Glusman) and Electra (Aomi Muycock) sprawled out naked in bed, pleasing each others' nether regions in ways that are graphically depicted, it's almost exactly the sort of shocking image that the Cannes press was expecting from Noé. And yet, as Murphy's breath became shorter and his penis began to spurt prodigiously — the violins on the soundtrack accompanying him with their own crescendo — I heard the man next to me mutter a French expletive under his breath, perhaps having expected Noé to stop just short of including semen. Did I mention that the movie is in 3-D?
Short on plot but lengthy where it matters, Love follows American expat Murphy as he explores a sexually open relationship in Paris with the alluring Electra. Despite his own on-the-side indiscretions, Murphy gets jealous whenever Electra might be getting it on with someone else, so the two of them decide to compromise in the best possible way by inviting their beautiful blonde neighbor Omi (Klara Kristin) over for a romp with both of them. She's only 16, but no matter: They're in France, after all. "I fucking love Europe," Murphy enthuses as he takes both of them to bed.
Their threesome is Love's sexual centerpiece, and the scene is presented in one long, barely broken take, shot from above as the three of them cavort in an undeniably erotic encounter. The sequence came just as I'd realized whom the handsome Glusman reminded me of — with his sullen stare and pouty lips, he looks a little like John Mayer — and soon, it wasn't hard to see his blonde and brunette sex partners as stand-ins for Mayer exes Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. In this version, though, Katy goes way beyond kissing a girl, and once the three of them move into different positions, she's for damn sure sampling more exotic tastes than cherry Chapstick. (These bodies, it's implied throughout, are a wonderland.)
Alas, caddish Murphy can't help but pursue Omi on the side, and soon enough, she's pregnant, a revelation that drives his real love Electra out of his arms. "I'm a loser," he grunts to himself in a typically blunt piece piece of dialogue. "Just a dick, and a dick has no brain. A dick has only one purpose. To fuck. And I fucked it up." According to Noé, his screenplay for Love was seven pages long.
The writer-director couldn't help but grin at the press conference afterwards; yes, his film had earned some how dare you boos at the morning screening, but would a filmmaker like Noé have settled for anything less? Though he surely knew exactly what cinematic taboos he was testing with Love, Noé insisted that the film was so tame that even a 12-year-old could see it. "I don't have the impression that there's any transgression in the film," he said. "To represent sex, it's hard not to film genitalia."
And according to Glusman, a relative unknown who'll next be seen in Roland Emmerich's Stonewall, the actors were thrown into the deep end from the get-go. 'The first day of shooting, Gaspar decided to start us off with a close-up of my genitals," he laughed. "I was in the bathroom beforehand thinking I should escape to the airport and run off to the United States, that it was the end of a very short career."
His scene partner, however, found it freeing. "When I was young, I had a lot of complexes about showing my body," said Kristin, who had never acted before Noé met her a party and cast her to play Murphy's nubile neighbor. "And then it was like, What the fuck? Why? We are all humans, we are all beautiful. Why be ashamed?"
Certainly, Noé isn't, and after Blue Is the Warmest Color proved that plentiful pussy-eating can still win the Palme d'Or, perhaps filmmakers will become further emboldened. "If you look up 'love' on the internet, you'll probably find that 50 percent of the images are pornographic," he said. "You can't fight what the world has become. It's now a fact of life, it's the way things are." Still, there was one scene that Noé admitted to cutting. "An ejaculation," he said, which would have brought the total to four. If you're wondering whether even Gaspar Noé has his limits, perhaps you've found them; or else, maybe he's just saving something for the sequel.