Chris Palazzolo watches Love, directed by Gaspar Noe, 2015
There are almost no shot reverse-shot patterns in the many dialogue and sex scenes of Gaspar Noe’s Love; scenes are single takes, sometimes chopped by jump-cuts, with both interlocutors or copulators in the frame. If there is only one person in the frame then there is no one else with them. The shot reverse-shot pattern, which is the great syntactical device of classical film narration, is of its essence ambiguous – a shot of a person talking, followed by a completely separate shot of another person talking are only conceived of as a unit of narrative because a century of compositional and linguistic conventions enable viewers to read them that way. Ignore those conventions and all one sees is a radical spatio-temporal disjunct between one shot and the next.
What I mean to say in this back-to-front way is that Noe’s film has no ambiguity; things are exactly what they appear to be, frame by frame, and if something or someone is not in the frame then they are not present; each shot is a self-contained unit of narration which gives the narrative its serial quality (as distinct from the cross-stitch texture of the classical narration). The most obvious reason for this is because it is squarely in the tradition of French New Wave cinema from the 1950s and 60s which eschewed the conventions of Hollywood narrative. But I think more importantly it has a thematic function too. The film is about the paradoxical non-ambiguity of French conceptions of love and sex; that lovers are Sexual Citizens, binding themselves to each other from a condition of radical equality; that the right to use and be used by others for pleasure is granted and bound by rules established in a pledge; and that the pledge, because it is given in freedom and freedom is revolutionary, cannot be broken. The story is this: two lovers pledge undying love for each other, agree that the ultimate outcome of their love will be a child, but delay that outcome by a perilous exercise of the right to non-procreative sexual freedom; the precocious girl they invite for a threesome states that she does not agree with abortion; a condom breaks and the lovers’ pledge is breached; the guy loses the love of his life, and is trapped with a young wife and child that he does not love. The body and soul of the lover is flayed by freedom because freedom is the condition from which the rules he broke were made. The rules between the Sexual Citizens are their freedom. To break them is to become unfree.
Sex and rules (regimes) is a theme of French philosophy and literature that can be traced to the bed-chambers of the Marquis De Sade. De Sade’s evil aristocrats do not feel love; they are revolutionaries forging rules for sex and pleasure as praxis. This involves cleansing it of Christian morality in the most criminal way imaginable – the torture and murder of the pious and meek in spectacularly perverse sex games. Expunged of morality sex and pleasure become entirely human responsibilities. As democracy emerges over the following centuries those responsibilities become responsibilities between equals, which means paraphilias can no longer extend to murder, but that consent can legitimately be considered as part of the game. In the same way that French democracy was seeded in the terror and murder of the Revolution, so the French conception of love (the lovers’ sexual needs granted and rigorously bound by pledges), had one of its earliest codifications in the rule-bound debauches of De Sade’s libertines. This conception of love has radiated out across our civilisation to become one of our most cherished freedoms – the freedom to love whoever we wish to love, to make our own rules for that love, and to end that love when we wish to end it. So benign and taken-for-granted this freedom has become we forget the radical origins of the Sexual Citizen. Love, along with other hardcore French movies (Catherine Breillat’s Romance) serve to remind us of them.
– Chris Palazzolo
Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.