I

n flagrante delicto

. So opens the very first shot of

Love

, the fourth feature from one of France's leading brokers of transgressive cinema, Argentinian-born writer-director Gaspar Noé.

The scene, of a man and woman engaging in various forms of manual sex, is explicit, erotic, perhaps pornographic. (Where does art stop and pornography begin, the film asks rather awkwardly?) It gives no warning, makes no excuses. It's just there, in your face.

It's a provocative way to being a film. And we'd expect nothing less from Noé, who galvanized critics with his second movie, Irréversible (2002), which featured an excruciatingly long, explicit rape scene.

Noé's follow-up, Enter the Void, was no less extreme, but also achieved a level of lyricism that was thoroughly enchanting.

With Love, Noé seems to have de-evolved, abandoning the artistic control and balance he achieved in his previous picture. Self-indulgent, ridiculously overlong at 135 minutes, Love provokes the audience for the sake of provocation alone.

Love is a Bildungsroman about a young would-be filmmaker named Murphy (Karl Glusman), living in Paris and desperately in love with a Gallic beauty named, of all things, Electra (Aomi Muyock). But she leaves him when he gets their mutual friend and sometime sex partner Omi (Klara Kristin) pregnant.

Think of it as a Portrait of the Young Artist as a Young (Sexually-Hyperactive) Man that uses montage and flashbacks to simulate something akin to James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness prose.

Noé gives us a buffoonishly written backstory that explains why Omi could never consider having an abortion, so Murphy is forced to stay with her and the baby.

Told entirely from Murphy's point of view - a shame, given that he's a silly, pretentious narcissist - the film consists of all the things that go through his head during a single day after he gets a call from Electra's mother.

Preoccupied with her, he daydreams about his relationship Electra. For all its avant-garde bells and whistles, Love is a very conventional story about a depressed guy who feels trapped with a wife and baby he can't stand. So he spends his hours obsessing about an ex.

One wonders why an artist of Noé's talent would bother chronicling the inner life of such an annoying little jerk. Or why he thought it justified to film every thought, feeling, and fantasy that passes through Murphy's head - including, of course, the memory of all the sex he had with Electra. And why Noé felt compelled to show all of it in X-rated detail.

Worse yet are the scenes that have Murphy, who seems to think he's the Italian director and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini reborn, pontificate about his theory of art. "I want to make movies out of sperm, out of blood and tears," he tells Electra.

Noé seems unwilling to accept that art requires editing - it is, by definition, artifice. It demands the artist make choices, rather than try to cram an entire catalog of experiences down the viewer's throat.

What's saddest about Love is that every once in a while, the film gives us flashes of near-sublime visual poetry, only to crash and burn again on the shores of Murphy's puerile existence.

215-854-2736

Love ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Gaspar Noé. With Karl Glusman, Aomi Muyock, Klara Kristin, Isabelle Nicou. Distributed by Alchemy.

Running time: 2 hours, 15 mins.

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (graphic nudity and sex, profanity, peurile theories of art).

Playing at: PFS Roxy.

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