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The Director of the Year’s Most Sexually Explicit Movie Is on a Quest to Redefine Love

6 minute read

“Every couple who had a baby had sex. Every person who’s in this world—it’s because their parents had sex at least once in their life.” It’s a rainy October afternoon in New York, and Gaspar Noé is stating the obvious—not as a biology lesson, but by way of explaining why his new movie, Love, is so very, very full of sex.

“Full of sex,” in this case, means the following: The movie begins with a minutes-long scene of fully nude mutual masturbation. From there, perhaps a third of its running time is dedicated to various sexual acts—there is an extended, sensual ménage-a-trois, a neon-lit swingers’ orgy, an encounter with a transgender prostitute. Bathroom sex, bedroom sex, alleyway sex, tender sex, angry sex, unfaithful sex. None of it is simulated; the actors are fully engaged in the acts. Oh—and it’s shot in 3-D.

Love, which opens in select theaters Oct. 30, is Noé’s fourth feature film, but not necessarily—despite its abundant nudity—his most provocative. His 2002 drama Irreversible featured a harrowing, nine-minute rape scene, and his 2009 “psychedelic melodrama” Enter the Void was filmed from the first-person perspective of an American drug dealer in Tokyo who has been shot dead, floating over the city as he recalls the plot points of his life.

Love, similarly, features a man looking backwards, although its premise requires no suspension of disbelief: Murphy (Karl Glusman) is an American film student living in Paris with a woman he doesn’t love (Klara Kristin) and the son they conceived when a condom broke. Shaken by a message that his ex-girlfriend Electra (Aomi Muyock) hasn’t been seen in months, he spends a day flipping through his mental Rolodex of their time together—which includes, explicitly, memories of their sex life.

Given the nature of the story, it’s surprising to learn that Noé first had the idea to shoot in 3-D after watching footage he took of his dying mother in his native Argentina. He had recently purchased a handheld 3-D camera, and when he looked at the images of her upon his return to France, where he now lives, he says: “I thought they were really emotional, because I felt, with the glasses on, that she was really behind the screen—almost like a puppet in a puppet theater.”

In the time between when he wrote the script (seven pages total, no dialogue) and began pre-production, Avatar and Gravity were released, and an increasing number of movie theaters became equipped to show high-quality 3-D movies. Noé applied for and received a subsidy for 3-D filmmaking from the French government, and Love’s extra dimension was secured.

But the 3-D filming, though it makes the characters more proximate (and certain parts of them sometimes a little too proximate) is a means to an end; that end is a realistic depiction of physical intimacy. When it comes to portraying sex in the movies, Noé says, we have a problem: Mainstream cinema doesn’t do it enough, and pornography doesn’t do it honestly. “The reason why I wanted to do this movie is because those scenes that are never portrayed on the movie screen are among the most important ones,” he says. “Either it’s just people talking and kissing but then you don’t see the best part of the love story, or you have movies dealing with sex in which people don’t kiss and they don’t talk about having babies.”

Noé’s aim, he says, is not to shock, but to normalize. “When you’re madly in love with someone, you only think about having sex and kissing and hugging and taking a shower with the person,” he says. People are often made to feel as though their sexual desires are perverse. “I wanted to be as close as possible to what love addictions are.”

There is a scene in the film in which a French man tells Murphy that he needs to loosen up about sex, that Americans are too repressed and possessive. When asked if the Frenchman’s attitude reflects his own, Noé concedes: “The representation of sex is slightly more problematic here than it is in France, in Belgium or in other countries.” On the other hand, however, European countries can’t just be lumped together like, say, bodies in a threesome.

“In Ukraine, the movie is forbidden to people who are under 21, when the age of consent is 16,” he says. “Most kids are watching porn since they are 10 or 11. So why do these people who are already mature have to wait five more years to go to see the presentation of sex onscreen?” In Russia, the movie is banned altogether, which Noé says he finds hypocritical. “No problem showing horror movies, no problem showing cannibal movies—even showing a movie of simulated sexual violence like Irreversible was not a problem.”

Squeamishness about sex, Noé says, adheres to neither national borders nor logic—why ban in a movie theater what people can pull up with two clicks of a mouse? “If someone goes to those websites where you can see images of sex, you really feel you are kind of sick and it does not seem natural to watch those images, while [it is] something that is very natural,” he says. “So yeah, I think there’s something dysfunctional in the whole western world.”

There are moments when Love‘s sex seems to be prized above Love‘s story—that is, the mission to dismantle cultural repression is better tended than the mission to reveal the characters’ interior lives. But perhaps that’s because what the characters do to each other’s bodies, and what that does to their minds, is the story. Here, the sex can’t be separated from the emotion. After all, the movie isn’t called Sex—it’s called Love.

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com