You can't accuse Love of pussyfooting around, or beating around the bush, or any other innocent term that's transformed into a terrible pun in the context of this mind-bogglingly explicit movie. It begins with a shot of a young man and woman in bed, nude, slowly bringing each other to orgasm with their hands. Even in the boundary-pushing edges of arthouse cinema, it's a startling way to open a movie — one long, static take, all the better to consider the taut and tumescent flesh on display and think, Man, that really doesn't seem to be a prosthetic. Did I mention it's in 3D?
Love, which just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will be released in the U.S. by Alchemy, is the new movie from French director Gaspar Noé (I Stand Alone, Irreversible), a man who's never met a button he hasn't been compelled to push, repeatedly and with great enthusiasm. His last film, Enter the Void, which played the festival in 2009, took place mostly from the first-person POV of a ghost, and included a sex scene as seen from inside a vagina. It also featured mind-meltingly hallucinatory imagery and some flat-out brilliant filmmaking, especially in a sequence that flashed through its main character's childhood into his hard-partying life in Tokyo like a terrible, beautiful living slideshow. Noé's need to provoke may sometimes be reminiscent of a child proudly showing everyone where he pooped on the carpet, but there's no question of his talent.
And Noé deserves credit for putting sex so boldly at the front and center of his new romance and depicting it as an essential part of love and life that's largely left off screen. (The director refused to elaborate on how much of the sex was simulated and unsimulated.) He rightly points out, by way of an on-the-nose declaration from his aspiring filmmaker protagonist Murphy (Karl Glusman) — the guy in that opening shot — that few movies genuinely show what he describes as "sentimental sexuality," no matter how important a role it might play in a relationship.
There are no embraces that tumble discreetly off screen or coy fades to black in Love, which shows plenty of frank fucking in multiple locations and configurations, including a threesome that leads Murphy to heartbreak. The women who join him in it are Elektra (Aomi Muyock), his obsessive love, and Omi (Klara Kristin), with whom he's living (along with their baby), at the start of the film.
How Murphy ended up there is where Love, which is told largely in flashback, gets torturous, because it assumes its main character is empathetic when he's actually a wretched, unrelenting asshole. Murphy loves Elektra, but repeatedly cheats on her, not just in a pivotal instance with Omi, but also by letting a girl pick him up in front of her at a party. He's violently jealous, and proudly describes how he picks a fight with Elektra's former lover at an event as "protecting his woman." He hungers for erotic adventure, but hates when Elektra participates on any level but the one he thinks is appropriate — he takes her to a sex party and then castigates her afterward for fooling around with another man while there.
Muyock, who looks like a cross between Angelina Jolie and Noé's last leading lady Paz de la Huerta, plays the filmmaker's ideal type of heroine: malleable, sensual, and damaged, a beautiful disaster with a taste for drugs who exists only in relation to male desire. As Omi, Kristin is mainly treated with hidden contempt, with Murphy claiming in his voiceover that she tricked him into his current domestic life. All three leads make more of an impression with their bedroom feats than with their acting.
The sex, though, is definitely something — exquisitely composed and shot, embodying the lust, the tenderness, the anger, the frustration, or the love its participants happen to be feeling. It is unfortunate that for all his supposed openness and sex positivity, Noé still displays deep discomfort for everything outside of the heteronormative — he features women together only for the pleasure of his male characters, jokes about an angry mother turning her son gay, and includes an uncomfortable scene with a trans woman. But when Noé finally works his way up to the 3D money shot that Love feels like it was conceived to showcase, it's an applause-worthy achievement. Who else is going to show you that, and at the most highfalutin film fest around?
The love story in Dheepan, another Cannes premiere, is free of NC-17 moments, but edgy in its own way — maybe even more so, given the traumatization of its characters, three refugees from Sri Lanka who've pretended to be a family in order to seek asylum in Europe. Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), his not-wife Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) are desperate strangers thrown together by a smuggler based on their rough resemblance to the recently dead people whose passports he's providing.
The trio end up in France, where they're assigned an apartment and jobs in a gang-riddled housing project outside Paris. Theirs is an immigrant story not just about learning the ins and outs of a new country, but the particular rules of a crime-filled neighborhood. When Dheepan, who barely understands French, is given a tour of the building of which he's been made caretaker, it includes areas where he's told he'll need to wait for the dealers to be done for the day before heading in.
Dheepan explores an outsider's view on a part of France that doesn't often get put on screen, but it also looks at how playing house pushed each of the three refugees to lean into and against the roles they've been assigned. This is especially true for Dheepan and Yalini, whose pragmatic partnership opens up to the potential of something more, especially after she invites him into her bed one night, leading him away from the window into her darkened room.
But Yalini is also unwilling to commit to someone who's still essentially blood-splattered from his time as a Tamil Tiger — she has a cousin in London and one foot out the door, while Dheepan's determined to make their current location his home. While he considers making his falsified marriage a real one, she develops a crush on a local gangster (Vincent Rottiers) who's more dangerous than she first realizes.
Dheepan is directed by Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone), and in some ways continues the themes of his searing, Oscar-nominated prison drama A Prophet, another movie that's insistent on showing France as multicultural, changing, and filled with turmoil as much as with charming cafes. His latest has a little too much in common with A Prophet at the end, segueing into violence that doesn't jell with the more delicate and emotionally generous story that preceded it. But Dheepan is still a warm, alarming, heartache-y watch, about three people united in fleeing one kind of danger for another.