Terence Nance is an artist originally from Dallas, TX. His first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won a Gotham Independent Film Award. The album of the same title will be released later this year.
There are probably many types of failure.
The first one I know about is failing forward. This is when, for instance, you are in such hot pursuit of an outlandish, progressive, and original idea that you — tragically — fall short. A lesson is usually learned in this type of failure, whether it is the loving of a charismatic bit flawed person, the launch of a premature space mission that ends in flames, or a cheesy scene in an otherwise profound film (e.g. the beach scene in Tree of Life). There is virtue in failing forward, even admiration to be enjoyed in the watching of someone reach beyond their limits. Even if there is something left broken in the wake of this stretch.
And then there is just failure. There is failure that is the result of not stretching, failure as a result of copying or laziness. Failure that stinks of self-aggrandizement or worse, some sort of value system in which physical beauty trumps emotional depth or the turns of a drama trump the originality of a concept. This failure, this FAIL, is the most vexing, the most insulting, the saddest to watch, the most humbling to endure because it, like most things human, can happen to you.
Love is this type of failure. It is a failure of unknowable proportions. It is the god fail. The omega fail. The fail to end all fails. It is almost inconceivable given the intensity of its misogyny and objectification of women, almost impressive in its vapidity, its triteness, its utter lack of invention, its safety, its boldly going where we have all already been before a gazillion times.
This is the perfect fail. It has created a new criterion for cinematic failure.
FAIL: Started from the top, now we’re here.
It’s unprecedented. It is a fall from grace like none I’ve ever fathomed or seen. A fail must be set up for it to be this grand. If Michael Bay makes a shitty movie, can it even be said to be a failure? Is to fall from such low heights to fall at all? Gaspar, however, set himself up for this fall by ascending high above the independent film ecosystem with his previous two efforts. What you think of these films is less important than their place in culture. They are nothing if not stellar achievements of art and commerce. Pieces of inventive fine art that have somehow breached into popular culture and affected it. Films of completely noncommercial work that were able to be produced on a grand technical scale relatively early on the career of the auteur.
I loved Enter the Void when I saw it alone in the theater. I was transported like I have never been since and what it lacked in restraint it made up for in conceptual and technical ambition. Any failures within it were decidedly of the forward variety. I left the theater needing and wanting nothing else from it. It was a film that gave all it could. It expended itself. It ran to exhaustion and then vomited and kept running.
He was set up. He was atop a cliff, clear air, sound mind, etc., and then… he fell.
FAIL: The company you keep.
You must fail in concert with other people, who fail you. You fail each other in a sort of collaborative fail siphon. To that end, the film’s male lead is completely unwatchable. He is possibly the least charismatic human being on planet Earth. He seems like the model who always wanted to act, who gets roles because of the aspirational spirit of the director; the director wishes he looked like this guy so he casts him as an avatar for himself. Murphy has an inherent whinyness to his countenance. He makes you want to get Puffy to walk into the middle of the scene and ask, “Do you have some bitchassness in you?”
That said. It is possible that he is the best actor on planet Earth. Post film I started to imagine how I would feel if Rick Alverson had directed the film and instead of an earnest autobiographical take on a young love triangle it was a parody / takedown of the American-boy-in-Paris archetype. Designed to make fun of guys like Murphy who go abroad for sowing of wild oats and partying while they “find their voice as an artist.” Guys who, like this character, have no job but extremely beautiful Parisian apartments. Guys who are “filmmakers” but don’t seem to ever spend time making films or writing them or doing anything but doing drugs and fucking models. Guys who have great bodies but never work out. Taken as a joke at the expense of soulless international uber-bros and their misogyny / chronic lack of charisma and cultural interesting-ness, this guy’s performance is a masterpiece. But alas Rick did not make this movie and there reads no hint of irony in this performance of a hypermasculine insecure douche who just wants to put a baby bump in the first Parisian model he saw.
The casting is bad mostly because this guy, with whom we must spend the majority of the run time, can’t act. Not one of his emotions is believable. Everything he does feels like a choreographed affectation. But the casting in general is bad because it mistakes a square jaw, or buoyant breasts, or abs for sexiness or sensuality. Sure, a lot of people are sexually excited by a six-pack, but in my experience abs or deep-set blue eyes aren’t what makes someone sexy or even fun to watch have sex.
This film traffics in the idea that watching people whose look adheres strictly to Eurocentric standards of beauty will be inherently engaging or sexy. This assumption causes the film to so widely miss the point / idiom of what makes a human, or the idea of said humans, having sex thrilling or sexy — which, at least to me, is mystery.
Given that criterion, mystery must be engineered through storytelling and image-making. To have a mysterious character, you must first describe to us their idiosyncrasies; you must bait us into wanting to know more. For example, you meet someone on the train. They smell a certain way. They smell familiar. They look like they might be into origami or herbal tea. They are reading something that you always wanted to read but haven’t gotten around to yet. You start to wonder about them. They look at you. Bat their eyelashes. You notice an adventurous lipstick choice. You start to truly wonder about them. And then after you have been baited by the possibilities which these scant few details suggest, then you wonder what it would be like to watch them make love.
Neither the movie nor the characters in it engage in this mystery-making; there is no detail put forth to whet our appetite. No foreplay, no “come hither” look from across the room, there are just abs and well-formed breasts and pouty lips, all things most of us have seen many times before, occasionally in person!
That said, I have not found as much fault with the women in the film because either… they are not on screen long enough for us to find fault with the laziness or ineffectual nature of their performance, or they are strong enough actors to introduce — just in the details of their gazes, huffs, and sighs — enough restraint and storytelling to make you wonder about them.
Full disclosure: I am not a virgin, so I know one or two things about sex.
The first thing can be explained in this segment.
Another is that how a person makes love to another is specific to who they are. It is a part of their character. This fact is neglected in the film. We are treated to scene after scene of boring as hell, predictable intercourse that in no way tells the story of these people (with the exception of an attempted ménage with a trans woman). If anything, it tells me that they seem to be 80-year-olds in 20-year-olds’ bodies. Their sex is so dispassionate and arrhythmic that it feels like it was sampled from a well-photographed but banal as fuck late-night Skinemax softcore special.
While watching the film, I began to ponder upon the etymology of the term “half-baked” and thought to myself how terrible it would be to attempt to make a sandwich out of a loaf of bread that did not spend enough time in the oven. The result would be very wet. Gooey. Untasty bread. This movie fits that description.
That said, the true culinary error is in the conceptualizing and writing of the film. It’s just plain old not thought out. It feels like scene after scene of placeholder ideas. The dialogue is lmfao platitude after platitude. It feels as though each line the male lead says is either taken from a bad greeting card or overheard from a drunken argument had by a bro and bro-ette on the set of a Real World / Road Rules spinoff competition show from the early 2000s.
The plotting is so wildly unimaginative that it was either inspired by a real-life story that Noé was too close too to let go of or was conceptualized in a drug-induced state of faux inspiration. The highs that convince you the thought you are thinking now is the most next-level shit ever of all time. The film reeks of a kind of shallow, hyper-misogynist, male superego that equates masculinity and love with the ability to impregnate a woman and monogamy with the type of possessiveness that allows a man to fuck whatever woman throws herself at you but still get angry when your lady literally touches another penis with her pinky nail (this actually happens).
And that, friends, brings us to the most egregious fail, which is the misogyny that this film traffics in. It is by far the out-and-out most flippantly patriarchal movie I’ve ever seen. Noé paints women as bags of flesh and bone whose main purpose is to be penetrated and hold babies. In his gaze, every woman’s worth is defined by her youth, her sexual loyalty to her man, how much attention she pays to the man, and to what extent she is willing to put out for him and indulge in his fantasies. The movie is so starved for an authentic female perspective that when Murphy articulates his “ultimate fantasy” to be a threesome with a young blonde, his girlfriend impossibly answers, “That’s mine too” (!!!!), at which point I wondered how I had missed the disclaimer at the beginning of the film which must have read: “No actual women were consulted in the making of this film.” The whole thing plays out like the fever dream of a man who has pathologized his own internalized hatred of women into his only source of power. So in the movie, and maybe in life, his only option is to objectify them and reduce them to controllable shadow people who exist only to pleasure him or destroy him.
One of the most important moments in my education as a filmmaker was the experience of taking my wife to see Enter the Void in theaters a few days after I had watched it alone. I don’t know why, but I expected her to share my opinion of it. The opposite was true. She was sooo bored and unengaged by it. So impervious to its magic. So immune to its charisma that I started to see the film through her eyes. The film changed like a chameleon. Same film, different skin. Scenes that played as loquacious and patient before became indulgent and never-ending. What was once heartfelt became cheesy. Etc. That is all to say there is particularity to the perspective from which one might enjoy Gaspar’s films. I don’t know how to describe that perspective, but some adjectives to point you in that direction might be: alone, lost, adrift, indecently aroused, willing to be disgusted, patient, and knowledgeable of how hard it is to create strange, large-budget feature films. I don’t know if it is possible to enjoy Gaspar’s films from other, more everyday perspectives: i.e. ready to be entertained, loved, manipulated, titillated, or saved.
With Love, Noé has perfected the art of the fail. There is a blessing that’s not so much in disguise: you can only go up from here.