Alchemy, 2015
Writer: Gaspar Noé
Director: Gaspar Noé
Out of 5: 2.5

What’s the difference between a conventional, narrative film and a pornographic film? Surely, the intention of the director has some bearing on that distinction, as well as how much of the movie is actually devoted to, you know, sex. If 50% of a film is made up of honest-to-God, un-simulated sex, is it pornography? What about 75%? In making Love (pun absolutely not intended), Gaspar Noé seems to have stumbled upon the exact intersection on the graph at which “conventional film” ends and “pornographic film” begins. There’s no understating the amount of sex: There’s a lot of it, it’s totally real, it’s extremely graphic… oh, and it’s in 3D.

Noé creates a plot, yet it can’t help but feel like an afterthought meant to provide a little bit of context for the scenes of people going at it. Murphy (Karl Glusman) is unhappily married to Omi (Klara Kristin), with whom he’d cheated on his previous girlfriend, Electra (Aomi Muyock). After a broken condom results in Omi’s pregnancy, Murphy’s relationship with Electra comes to an unceremonious end. Most of the story is told in flashback — when Electra’s mother calls Murphy and informs him that Electra has been missing for months, he spends the day thinking back on their relationship and its demise.

love-tongueIt just so happens that nearly all of Murphy’s memories of Electra revolve around their sex life. To Noé’s credit, this may be the best that sex has ever looked on screen. The colors pop, the camerawork is masterful, and even the use of 3D is pretty astounding; much like Gravity or The Walk, Love is a film that ideally should be seen in that format. The depth of field allows Noé to make the acts on screen all the more intimate. Sometimes the sex is filmed straight-on as to make everything clear, while at other times it’s filmed at angles so strange that it begins to appear almost alien. There’s something to be admired about the way the movie just goes for it; sex is a vital part of romantic relationships, yet so many films shy away from depicting it in anything but the most vanilla fashion. It’s as if Noé, frustrated with the way that “love” in cinema is often stripped of its eros, is throwing his hands in the air and yelling, “This is love, too!”

The problem is that the sex scenes, seemingly infinite in number, quickly lose their wow-factor. With an hour left to go, these sequences begin to feel more like a chore than an exciting cinematic innovation. The plot surrounding them, however, is even more tiring. The scenes of Murphy’s past are interspersed with scenes of his current life, in which he mopes in his apartment, pining for Electra in insufferable voiceover monologues. It’s one thing for the characters to be unlikeable, but it’s another for them to be entirely un-compelling. Some of that blame can be placed on the amateur actors, who simply put, aren’t all that great at acting (though they all seem to be pretty good at having sex). One would imagine a casting director’s job is made all the more difficult when charged with finding performers who not only can act, but are also willing to have sex on camera.

Noé’s script, more than the performances, is the film’s biggest issue. It’s never made clear exactly why Murphy was so in love with Electra or why he remains so heartbroken over losing her. Noé makes the opposite mistake that most filmmakers striving to depict love on screen would make: in focusing so much on erotic-love, he fails to explain how Murphy also seems to be in love with Electra on a personal level. Likewise, the only reason the audience knows that Murphy’s later relationship with Omi is miserable is because the voiceover assures the audience that it is. The stilted plot along with the increasingly diminishing returns of the sex scenes makes for something wildly uneven.

Although the movie fails on a fundamental level when it comes to developing its plot and characters, it wouldn’t be at all fair to call the movie itself a failure; it truly succeeds when it comes to capturing sex on camera in a new way. Love is seldom a good film, but it is, at times, great pornography.

Eli Sentman is a writer who loves serious movies and bad reality television equally. He’s on twitter @elisentman.