I want to make movies out of blood, sperm and tears,” aspiring film-maker Murphy, played by Karl Glusman, proclaims in Gaspar Noé’s provocative new flick Love. “My dream is to make a movie that truly depicts sentimental sexuality.” Murphy is drunk at a party in Paris and making this bold statement to a woman named Paula, while his girlfriend Electra looks on. Moments later, Paula is riding him in a bathtub. When he emerges, flies still undone, Electra flatly informs him that she cheated on him with her ex-boyfriend, and the pair scream at each other in a taxi through Paris, before making up, in typically graphic fashion, at home.
“I’ve actually seen guys do that,” says Karl Glusman, the young unknown New Yorker that plays Murphy. “Cheat on their girlfriends at parties and then lose it with rage when they find out they’ve also been cheated on.”
Glusman’s character is at the centre of Love’s visceral erotica and, in a very meta way, so is his proclamation about wanting to see “sentimental sexuality” onscreen. The film’s characters have unsimulated and unvarnished sex, filmed in 3D, including one shot of semen spurting at the camera. But Love also looks to depict how sex can dominate the way humans connect and how lies and hypocrisy can readily become part of the most intimate things we do.
Told in flashback, the plot sees Murphy struggling to adjust to his life as a new father. He’s in mourning for his mysterious ex Electra, with whom he is still deeply in love. They once had a threesome with a blonde neighbour called Omi, Murphy cheated on Electra with her, and got her pregnant. Now he is here, Omi caring for his infant son as he mopes about in bed, with Electra missing, maybe dead.
Filmed with Noé’s trademark stylisation and self-regarding indulgence, the director meant for Love to question why crinkle-nosed puritanism still exists towards cinematic sex – the thing we spend most of our time thinking about – when extravagant violence, something that Noé’s films are familiar with, is much more common. Glusman knew what he was getting himself into. “He told me I was going to be naked, and my penis was going to be exposed,” he says of his conversations with Noé. “He told me we weren’t going censor or sugar-coat sex, but show something we all experience on a regular basis. He wanted to know why, when you depict intimacy in a room with the blinds closed, people get so upset.”
Glusman’s is not what you’d call a typical “performance”, and Love’s leading actors put their bodies on the line in a way rarely seen in cinema before. Aomi Muyock, who plays Electra, is a Parisian model with no previous acting experience. She says she found the prospect of the shoot, in which six technicians manned two cameras, terrifying.
“I was very frightened at the beginning,” she says. “On the one hand, there were a lot of people there, so you weren’t totally in an intimate moment.” And on the other, Noé had made a point of giving the actors very little direction. “The nakedness wasn’t uncomfortable,” she says. “It was more the actions we had to do. The first day of shooting I found difficult. But I realised that, doing this, it’s not wrong.”
Danish actor Klara Kristin, a former painter’s assistant who plays Omi, agrees. “I had a lot of complexes about my body when I grew up,” she says. “I wouldn’t even show my mum. But I got to the stage where I was like: ‘What the fuck? Why be ashamed? We’re all humans.”
It’s this human aspect, underlined by the improvisational nature of the sex scenes, that gives Love a certain warmth. All three actors’ relative obscurity blurs the line between what’s real and what isn’t. “I’ve read people who say the actors were shit,” Glusman says of the reactions to the film. “Maybe they thought we weren’t acting. And yeah, to some degree we weren’t, because we didn’t know what was going to happen next. So there’s some of me there, for sure.”Glusman and Muyock only met the day before the first shoot, when they would have to bring each other to orgasm. “We had a coffee together,” he remembers. “I was pretty nervous, so I asked her: ‘Do you think we should kiss before the shoot tomorrow? Just to get it out of the way?’ She smiled and said: ‘No, I don’t think that’s a good idea’.”
It’s almost a cliche that co-stars often get together. But when IRL sex is involved, does that complicate your day job even more? “When you do any relationship scene, you do fall in love with your acting partner a bit,” Glusman says. “And this was similar, just on steroids. I felt like I was giving a part of myself away every day, and then you go to your hotel room, and you’re alone in Paris, at night. There was a bit of heartbreak every night.” They’re just friends now, he says, adding sincerely and a little strangely: “We’re like incestuous siblings, at Gaspar Noé’s summer camp, where there’s no jealousy, there’s no fear, and everyday, it’s just like Christmas.”
Love is breaking new ground and it has helped break its cast, too; since the film premiered at Cannes in May, Glusman has been cast in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals and Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. Is it a sign that screen sex is destined to become more accepted? “I hope so,” he says. “Because we’re not doing anything that’s perverse. We’re not doing anything strange. Everything in the film, all the sex, it seems natural, to me at least.”
Glusman talks about old Hollywood, when scenes were cut if a couple kissed for too long. But he doesn’t think much has changed. “Look at Nymphomaniac. Lars von Trier was telling us he’d show sex like we’ve never seen it before. Then you realise it’s all body doubles. That seems so strange and alien to me. Maybe it’s because they’re movie stars and they’re worried whether Disney is going to hire them.”
So he’s not expecting a call from Disney then? “I don’t know, I would enjoy wielding a lightsaber.”
Love is in cinemas now