“The fantasy ideal of a perfect work of pornography would be precisely to preserve this impossible harmony, the balance between narration and explicit depiction of the sexual act.” -Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry
Over the past two years a series of films have attempted to blur the line between cinema and pornography. We’ve seen films like Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013), Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) and Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (2013), each notable for its supposedly groundbreaking visual treatment of sex in narrative cinema.
These films, while not exactly unprecedented in film history, are notable insofar as they are not seedy exploitation films or erotic thrillers; they’re art house films basically taken seriously by the critical community. They’re part of the wider, essentially mainstream film conversation, thus presenting a credible challenge the traditional cinematic aversion to the portrayal of graphic sex in film.
Love, the new film from Argentinean-French agitator Gaspar Noé, is the latest attempt at this project.
Stylistically, Love might be Noé at his most fully integrated. It has his artistic fingerprints all over it: the coarse, morose voiceover of I Stand Alone (1998); the backwards-unfolding narrative structure of Irreversible (2002); the first-person and close-third-person camerawork of Enter the Void (2009). And more than anything, Love is another entry in the career of a provocative filmmaker held peerless for his capacity to offend, a movie that affirms Noé’s aesthetic conviction that we can gain meaningful insight through brutal shock.
But ironically, it is these risky devices—elsewhere the defining characteristics of his past films—that make Love such a challenging and imperfect film. Being so deep inside the protagonist’s head in I Stand Alone is severely unpleasant, but in a bafflingly ugly way that makes it impossible to turn away. The innovative cinematography in Enter the Void is consistently beautiful even as it nears tedium, and solving the disorienting reverse-timeline of Irreversible is both a thrill and a heartbreak.
Here, Noé still shines as his incomparable, mischievous self, but the finished product somehow feels simultaneously muted and overextended. Love is inventive and challenging. But the film asks so much of the viewer along the way that it’s no surprise that critics aren’t exactly lining up to sing its praises.
Perhaps Noé’s newest picture doesn’t offer quite enough by way of character, theme or technical innovation to bear the weight of all his stubborn artistic indulgences at once. The writing and much of the acting leaves something to be desired. The first half of the film is disappointingly dull. Events and motivations are presented to us painfully out of context. For much of the film, we have no one to root for, and worse yet, no one to root against. Ostensibly stakes-less and disorganized, it’s not long before the otherwise impressive and brave sexual content of the film starts to feel like a crutch—and for certain audiences, it may seem like an unnecessarily obscene one.
All of Noé’s films are designed to make you want to get up and walk out. I saw Love in an empty theater, save an intelligent-looking older couple that sat in the back. They exited halfway through. At that point, I couldn’t blame them; I was busy doubting my own endurance. But it’s a shame that they left when they did, because it’s is roughly at the halfway mark that the film comes to life.
As the narrative stretches backward and we come to understand the true dynamics of the film’s love triangle, Noé gains an unbelievable amount of visual momentum that translates into a moving, desperate experience.
But even at its most stunning and affecting, there’s still something off about the whole thing, isn’t there? Even a Noé groupie like me is forced to admit that there is something essentially flawed here, and that something goes to the root of its botched, albeit experimental, attempt at film narrative.
So is Noé a lazy writer? Have his tricks outworn their welcome? Or does the case of an impressive but imperfect experiment like Love say something deeper about the relationship between sexuality and film itself?
Before we’re able to really assess Love’s merits and significance, we need to ask whether it is possible in the first place for a movie like Love to be successful—can a movie, any movie, do what Noé wanted it to do and still be taken seriously?
Namely, can cinematic storytelling and pornography coexist?
The answer is no, according to Slavoj Žižek.
In his wonderful, incomprehensible 1992 primer on Lacanian psychoanalysis, Looking Awry, Žižek dedicates and entire section to the antimony of cinema and pornography. For Žižek, the two are fundamentally at odds:
“In a normal, nonpornographic film, a love scene is always built around a certain insurmountable limit; ‘all cannot be shown.’ At a certain point the image is blurred, the camera moves off, the scene is interrupted, we never directly see ‘that’ (the penetration of sexual organs, etc.). In contrast to this limit of representability defining the ‘normal’ love story or melodrama, pornography goes beyond, it ‘shows everything.’ The paradox is, however, that by trespassing the limit, it always goes too far, i.e. it misses what remains concealed in a ‘normal,’ nonpornographic love scene.
“The consequence of this is that harmony, congruence between the filmic narrative (the unfolding of the story) and the immediate display of the sexual act, is structurally impossible: if we choose one, we necessarily lose the other. In other words, if we want to have a love story that ‘takes,’ that moves us, we must not ‘go all the way’ and ‘show it all’ (the details of the sexual act), because as soon as we ‘show it all,’ the story is no longer ‘taken seriously’ and starts to function only as a pretext for introducing acts of copulation.” (emphasis added)
Why might this be the case? Žižek says that the antimony arises directly from the structure of human desire itself. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, desire exists in constant deferral. Desire cannot ever have an object, because once that object is attained the subject comes to realize that its true desire was a desire for something else all along. This is why we always miss the target. Even when we get what we want, there’s always something left over, missing.
So, desire corresponds only to that which is deferred, withheld, elusive, suspended. That which is concrete, tangible, obtainable, extant, etc. is anathema to desire. This is why different forms of fantasy—cinema included—are so essential to the human condition.
Isolating this feature of human subjectivity as expressed in conventional cinema, Žižek proposes a dialectic between pornography and what he identifies as its opposite: nostalgia.
And what is nostalgia? What is its effect on us as viewers? Take film noir, or more recent odes to “the good old days” like Downton Abbey or John Crowley’s new film Brooklyn. Žižek asks, “what precisely is so fascinating about this genre? It is clear that we can no longer identify with it.”
Inherent in Žižek’s dialectic is the concept of distance between film and viewer. Nostalgia works by distancing the viewer from what is being depicted on film, positioning the content somewhere impossibly far away. Nostalgia affects us not because we really desire what it offers (e.g. the purity and naiveté of a bygone era of genuine romance and authentic values). Nor do we truly “buy it” when films, old and new, resort to nostalgia. Yet, it’s undeniable that experiencing nostalgia via film is one of the art form’s great pleasures.
Nostalgia lets us rejoice in the fact that something is truly out of our reach; to experience nostalgia is to experience desire in the purest. (“Gosh, wow, that’s so nice, how wonderful, I wish I had that, but things are so different now, that could never be me, *sigh*…”) Thus the pleasure we get from nostalgic content is not from the fact that we believe in the nostalgic content but rather in the imagined fact that anyone ever could believe in it. Really, you do not watch nostalgia; you watch yourself watching it.
By contrast, pornography immediately brings us too close. It shatters the illusion of un-attainability inherent in nostalgia and desire itself. Most detrimentally to the production of diegetic reality, pornography effectively outruns our desire: in accelerating toward revelation of the bare sexual act, pornography skips over and misses entirely the unspeakable and unreachable object-cause of desire itself (in Lacanian terms, small object a).
“Pornography is thus just another variation on the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise that, according to Lacan, defines the relation of the subject to the object of desire.”
If we take desire to be an essential aspect of being enchanted or “moved” by cinematic narrative (i.e. fantasy), then we can understand why a pornographic depiction of sexuality is inconsistent with cinema. It derails the fantasied film experience by saying, up front, with no illusions and no games: you want to see what you desire? Here it is. Feast your eyes. Happy now?
And the problem is: no, we’re not happy. We’re left feeling betrayed by our own desire.
That is why, according to Žižek, attempts at story in porn films are always so laughably preposterous. We can’t even for one moment take seriously the stories themselves.
Is this, too, the problem with Noé’s film?
If you buy his Lacanian framework, Žižek offers a powerful and coherent theory that explains why Love is not truly a success. But I argue that there is more to say here.
For one thing, it’s possible that Žižek errs in positioning small object a as fixedly coincident with the sexual act itself. One might consider that the characters in the film, and the viewers in the audience, can be understood to have an express desire that reaches somewhere beyond biological copulation. In other words, the sexual act, rendered explicit or merely implied, is only one stop along the way as the characters reach out toward a more intangible, less visually ascertainable object-cause of desire (e.g. to heal deep emotional wounds, to finally escape loneliness and alienation, to be recognized as a subject by another consciousness, etc.).
If that is the case, then pornographic visuals do not “outrun” and extinguish our desire; rather, pornography can actually function as an element that helps to sustain desire.
With this criticism in mind, what’s interesting about Love is that it suggests precisely this synthesis to Žižek’s dialectic of nostalgia (thesis) and pornography (antithesis):Noé calls his synthesis sentimental sexuality.
In its usage here, sentimental sexuality utilizes pornographic film grammar to function formalistically as a necessary component of, a prerequisite to, a vehicle for, the formation of meaningful emotional intimacy with and among characters.
So rather, to experience this movie is not to ignore the graphic sex on screen but instead understand its pervasiveness and its frankness as an inherently cinematic device for creating emotional intimacy. As viewers, we were not only being let into their meet-cutes, their social insecurities, their blowout arguments, their happy endings or their melancholy departures, but also the private, simple, demystified passion of their sex life.
The key to understanding Love is to read the vaginal penetration and 3-D cumshots and continuous take handjobs specifically in conjunction with the words of Electra, the film’s female lead, as she presents the film’s core mission statement:
“Can you show me how tender you can be?”