Gaspar Noé’s Love (2015) explores the ordinary, everyday relationship between U.S student filmmaker Murphy, his girlfriend Electra, and their neighbour, Omi. Told via a series of flashbacks, the film is notable for exploring the sexual nature of the protagonists’ relationships and there are numerous sex scenes within the film. Filmed in 3D, Love’s most infamous sequence depicts an erect penis as it ejaculates towards the camera, the cum shooting towards audience’s gaze, the first 3D depiction of an ejaculation in a non-pornographic work. But while this image was briefly notorious, it is one of many sex scenes depicted in the film.
Amongst the shifting range of erotic images is a sequence set in a Parisian swingers club, filmed at Quai 17 . The scene is notable not just for its narrative function — in part it serves to contrast Electra’s openness with Murphy’s inability to engage with the dynamics of their relationship and his own sexuality — but also because of the depiction of a sexual-sub-culture that is rarely portrayed on screen with any authenticity. The comparatively explicit depiction of sex (at least in a non-pornographic work), and the lack of pseudo-moral judgment towards sexual activity, creates a naturalistic depiction of an orgiastic sexuality.
Occurring in the final third of the film, some context for the scene may be necessary. Murphy is arrested following a drunken, jealous assault on Electra’s ex-boyfriend at an art gallery opening. The arresting officer takes pity on the drunk man and over coffee a few days later he gives Murphy relationship advice. Sharing his own experiences the officer suggesting that Murphy visits a swingers club with Electra, both will be free to fuck other people and then leave together.
The film cuts from the interior of the classic Parisian café to the ‘depths’ of a swingers club. Throughout the scene the soundtrack blasts the theme from John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 (1976). The entire sequence is dark, the protagonists are seen frequently in silhouette against the red light spilling from anti-chambers, or merging with the black shadows that frame many of the shots in the club. As the scene opens the camera is behind Murphy, following him down a dark corridor. Initially the figures in the scene appear to be slightly out of focus, but then Murphy stops walking. The camera continues to move, briefly coming to rest on his right, enabling the audience to look at the subject of his gaze: on a bed a woman is fucking three men, the first thing that can be seen is an erect cock being held in front of her face, a man is standing, partly bent, over her, while to her left another man appears to tug on her nipple. The moment is brief and dark, the only colours come from two magenta squares of light behind the threesome and the red lights of the club. Murphy walks past the trio, glancing back over his left shoulder as he passes them.
Electra emerges from the shadows on screen right, now they both step in front of the camera as they walk down the corridor, on each side there are curtained cubicles from which the animal sound of fucking can be heard. The corridor is framed in the centre of the shot, with Electra walking on the right and Murphy positioned on the left. As the couple walk down the corridor Electra peers through open curtains. Halfway down they pass a small, curtain-less room, inside a woman is giving head to a man standing over her. Murphy pauses to look in, Electra stands behind him, her leaning into his back, watching with him. As the couple watch together a woman emerges from behind them and strokes Electra’s arm. Electra turns, looks at the woman and moves towards her, the camera pans slightly, focusing on the two women. Unaware, Murphy continues to look into the room. The two women start to embrace and kiss, the camera panning to follow them. Murphy turns and steps towards the two-women, but the stranger pushes him away, interested only in Electra. Appearing slightly put-out, Murphy steps away before he continues to walk down the corridor, glancing over his shoulder at the two women. The camera follows as Murphy walks into the darkness, he briefly peers into a room to his left, but continues to walk down the corridor. The red light spills from an open doorway, which fills the centre of the screen, the remainder of the image a black border of shadow. Two clothed men are silhouetted against the light from the room, inside the head and shoulders of a naked man can be seen, Murphy walks down the passage until he is positioned in the middle of the image. Framed by the door Murphy is the largest of the of trio of silhouetted figures, all staring into the red light of the room.
Cut to black, the soundtrack continues.
Inside the room, Murphy, his shirt unbuttoned, is fucking a woman from behind. The screen image is divided into three, with Murphy’s figure forming the break between the first two and final third of the image. The first two thirds are dominated by action: the silhouette of a clothed man masturbating forms the far left of the screen, while in the background, three figures look on. The woman lays at the bottom of the image across the first two thirds of the image. Separated by Murphy’s form, the right of the image appears empty, only marked by patterns of occasional strobing shapes on the wall, flickering shadows from lights elsewhere in the club. The open doorway is situated behind Murphy, serving as the threshold, in going through this portal his role in the evening’s proceedings has shifted from that of the passive voyeur to that of the active participant. The movement through the geography of the club extending beyond the physical and into the psychological, tracing a journey into Murphy’s lusts. The viewer’s perspective has also shifted, from travelling into the depths behind the couple, and sharing their exploration of the unfamiliar space, the audience are now looking at, and playing witness to, the action. Electra appears in the doorway behind Murphy and calls his name, asking him to come with her. Murphy stops having sex, and follows his girlfriend out of the room, his erection pointing out of his unbuttoned jeans. However, the camera remains within the confines of the room, the woman on the bed moves forward and kisses the masturbating man before descending onto his cock.
Cut to black, the soundtrack continues.
The camera follows Murphy as he enters another room. Lacking the red light of the previous shots, the lights are now slowly strobing, creating a disjointed, flickering visual effect in which the viewer’s eye becomes restless, the gaze unable to settle onto any single point. The room appears to be larger and is divided by a prison-style bars, a couple are having sex behind these. Electra is laying on her back, her black dress hitched-up, the top of the dress yanked down, exposing a nipple, a blonde-women has her hand between Electra’s legs. On one-side a man next to Electra is jerking off, on the other a couple are having sex, doggy style. Cut: a shot of the women on the bed, Murphy pulls aside the blonde-woman’s black underwear, the camera slowly moves around and it becomes clear another man is masturbating in the background, his cock hanging from his trousers. Cut: a medium shot of Murphy, he is looking down – presumably at Electra on the mattress – out of shot he appears to be either undoing or removing his trousers. A series of cuts follows: the blonde woman is sucking Electra’s nipple, the man masturbating pulls Electra’s hand to his cock and she starts to jerk it off. Cut: Murphy, now in medium close-up, is looking on, but bent over, behind him we can see two men watching the action. Cut: Electra is jerking the man’s cock, the blonde sucks Electra’s nipple before she is pushed away. Cut: Electra shifts her body and Murphy lowers himself onto her, the man masturbating and the blonde watch, the blonde woman starts to play with the man’s cock. Cut: Murphy is making love to Electra now. The blonde woman plays with the man’s cock and starts to suck it. Cut: medium close up of Electra and Murphy from the waist up. He kisses her neck as they fuck. Cut: medium close up of Electra against the railings. Cut: medium close up, still against the bars, Murphy is eating Electra’s cunt. The camera tilts up Electra’s body, her arms are stretched above her head, clutching the bars. Cut: medium close-up of her face. Cut.
“Do you know what my biggest dream in life is? My biggest dream is to make a movie that truly depicts sentimental sexuality.” – Murphy.
The protagonists’ slow drift through the club creates a recognizable three-dimensional space, while the fluid movement of the camera positions the audience as viewers and ‘participants’ within the actions. The walk also draws attention to the imminence of sex. Unsure where to go, who they should touch, where the corridor leads (it is their first time, they are exploring the space), the couple enter the club and the swinger’s world. When they glance into each room they are looking for some as yet unnameable act or some unknown liaison that will fulfil their desires. For Electra the necessary distraction is a kiss (and presumable more) from the woman in a corridor, for Murphy it is fucking, but by the end of the sequence it is clear that what both seek – at least in that moment – is each other.
The move in the third part of the scene to a more direct, action driven montage, changes the rhythm of the scene. The audience, who entered the space with the protagonists, are now distanced from them. While the previous images were bathed in deep red light and emerged from blackness, the activities transpiring in this space are clearer. During the brief sequence showing the couple’s lovemaking they become more fully focused on each other, rather than on those others around them, the visual emphasis on hugging, kissing, and licking becomes surprisingly tender, and, if not loving, at least there is a recognition of mutuality. Electra cums with Murphy’s head buried between her thighs, his face encunted in her vagina. The moment of connection does not last, and in the following scene Murphy is angry, immediately regretful of what he perceives as her – although crucially and absurdly not his – transgressions within the club.
Noé’s films are often visceral, and this scene is no different. There is a haptic quality to the action, emphasised through the repetition of images of touch, and especially sexual touch which is emphasised in shots of fingers and hands reaching for, probing, and grasping at, genitals. The spectacle of explicit masturbation and mutual masturbation – uncommon in non-pornographic cinema – is repeated throughout the scene. The use of darkness, shadow, and sound design, especially the sounds of sex, further emphasises the importance of other senses beyond sight, including those associated with erotic arousal. Tactility is further established by the emphasis on textures; the curtains across cubical entrances, the shots of clothes being touched, pulled aside, buttoned or unbuttoned, and hands reaching and grasping at bars. Finally there are multiple examples of non-verbal communication experienced through touch: strangers reaching to caress arms or stroke cocks or play with nipples.
In a film that is punctuated by explicit sex the scene in the swingers club appears exemplary because its eroticism shifts from that experienced primarily through the voyeuristic gaze, which the protagonists and audience share, to the more intimate experiences which manifest through the emphasis on the haptic. When the lovers fuck they are both partly dressed, any potential visual pleasure from looking at the protagonist’s bare flesh is negated because neither is fully naked, merely briefly exposed. Murphy unbuttons his shirt but never removes it, his erect penis is glimpsed only when he stops fucking, Electra leaves her clothes on, when her nipple is exposed it appears almost accidental, momentarily displayed over the fabric of her dress.
The use of the theme from Assault On Precinct 13, with its minimal rhythmic click, pulsing beat, and simple repetitive bass, serves to punctuate the tension within the couple’s relationship while simultaneously becoming re-imagined as an anthem to the collective hedonism.
The music is also a direct reference to Carpenter’s film. Set in an all-but empty police station over one night, Assault on Precinct 13 follows a handful of policemen, office staff and convicts, who find the police station under siege from murderous gangs who have sworn to kill them all. The music is repeated at key moments throughout Carpenter’s film, its terse, minimal structure building suspense into the thriller. In one notable scene Leigh, a civilian employee at the police station, goes down to the cells to free two prisoners. The scene opens as she walks down the corridor between rows of cells, as she enters the space the familiar theme starts to play on the soundtrack. Aware of the urgency Leigh opens the first cell and frees the prisoner inside, telling him to go into the police station. While opening she second holding tank a gang member breaks in and shoots her in the arm. She doesn’t flinch and as he gets closer she kicks him in the groin. She frees the second prisoner, and, after a brief fight with another hoodlum, Leigh and the prisoner run into the police station. Like the swingers club in Love, the holding tanks in the police station form small rooms on each side of the corridor, the framing placing the corridor in the centre of the screen, cells on each side, the protagonists framed in a medium-shot. Unlike the scene in Love with its roving camera, in Assault On Precinct 13 the camera is stationary, the shot / reverse shot from Leigh’s perspective as she looks down the corridor to the outside door, where hoodlums can be heard trying to break in, and looking at Leigh from the perspective of the outside door. While Love is dark, black and red, the scene in Assault On Precinct 13 is tinged in green and blue, the drab institutional palette associated with government buildings, rather than the vibrant colours of lust and sex, and yet a parallel can be drawn between the two interior spaces linked via the score.
The tag line for Assault on Precinct 13 “a white hot night of hate!” emphasizes the chaos where normal rules no longer apply. Although engaging with different rules, a similar reversal of the assumed order occurs when Murphy and Electra enter the swingers club, a space where, at least for one night, those social rules that govern most vanilla, conventional relationships no longer apply, and desire and lust are given full reign.