By Jeremy Carr.
Doesn’t hold a candle to Gaspar Noé’s best work, though it does represent the worst of his occasionally strained attempts for shock and awe.”
With no establishing context and following a few curious quotes and seemingly random clips from early films about witchcraft, Gaspar Noé’s Lux Æterna gets underway with Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg lounging beside a crackling fire. Dalle does most of the talking … a lot of the talking. “Sometimes I talk so much it drives me nuts,” she knowingly states. She rambles on about her experiences on prior film shoots and punctuates her effusive oration with a forced edginess and trendy nods to how “classy,” “chic,” and “über-cool” something or other has been. In an apparent attempt to at least add some visual variety to this static conversation, the picture periodically goes to a split screen, a device employed throughout Lux Æterna as it follows diverging characters or records the same action from two discrete vantage points. Sometimes, in this opening segment, the two frames show each woman in her own separate image (even though they’re right next to each other); sometimes it’s one alone against the image of the burning fire. Dalle and Gainsbourg speak of their work and, most notably as far as what appears to be a dominant theme of Lux Æterna, witches and being burned at the stake. During most of this sequence, Gainsbourg sips liberally from a glass of wine, which may also be a good idea for anyone watching this over-long and rather pretentious exercise.
But it’s not just the film itself that reeks of pretension. The genesis of Lux Æterna was itself a result of modish marketing. Conceived as an entry in Yves Saint Laurent’s “Self” series, which had previously featured the arty impressions of photographer Daido Moriyama, conceptual artist Vanessa Beecroft, and writer Bret Easton Ellis, Noé’s admission gave him relative artistic freedom under the conditions he also had to include the “faces of the brand” and clothes from the designer’s latest collections. So yes, in many ways this offering from France’s notoriously divisive provocateur is basically a fashion commercial, and while that in itself isn’t necessarily a cause for instant dismissal, as many an outstanding director has ventured into the realm of advertising with stellar results, that is not the case here.
After the initial exchange between Dalle and Gainsbourg, the “story” of Lux Æterna is gradually revealed as others enter the picture. It’s about the arduous production of a film about witches with Dalle as the fictitious feature’s interminably distraught director. Called “God’s Craft,” or “God’s Work” as it’s often been reported, the movie in the making stars Gainsbourg as one of the soon-to-be executed women (donned, as it were, in the smartest attire). The ensuing backstage drama has a mingling mélange of professionals angrily arguing, throwing tantrums, plotting against each other, and generally stressing about any and every aspect of the picture’s production. Several facets of the shoot are covered with representative practitioners: make-up, lighting, cinematography, costume, and so on. There’s also an imperious journalist and a budding director played by Karl Glusman, reprising his role as the filmmaker from Noé’s Love, who attempts to woo prospective stars, namely Gainsbourg. Prepping for the day’s shoot turns out to be an inordinately chaotic process, a constantly contentious battle between egos and, more broadly, the contrasting ideals of art, industry, and self-promotion.
In this, Lux Æterna could be seen as another in the long line of films about the filmmaking process, following the routinely cited likes of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, and François Truffaut’s Day for Night. Indeed, Lux Æterna is rife with cinematic allusions, from glimpses of Benjamin Christensen’s silent Häxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages) and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath to inserted quotes from Rainer Werner Fassbinder and references to Godard himself. If Noé’s intention was to depict the extreme trials and tribulations of filmmaking, Lux Æterna is an exasperating success. As this film shows it, the whole ordeal is a maddening experience plagued by a nonstop volley of technical difficulties and populated by a parade of pompous people. On the other hand, if Noé was attempting to make a film as entertaining or enlightening as these earlier features, with engaging characters and concerning situations, it’s far less productive.
The latter portions of Lux Æterna do grow increasingly tense as tempers flare, stubbornness prevails, caution is thrown to the wind, and subtly unnerving hums saturates the soundtrack…[then] climaxes in a frenzied, hyper-sensory denouement.”
But perhaps this is what Noé was aiming for. His films have seldom been easy or typical in any narrative or formal sense, and the fact Lux Æterna was shot in five days and was largely improvised could explain its (purposefully?) haphazard assembly — “Nothing works on this movie,” says one bystander, presumably talking about “God’s Craft.” “It’s a mess.” As a satire, then, the results are reasonably effective if not entirely amusing (Noé acknowledges he has a skewed sense of humor). One can’t help but laugh, even if derisively, at this supercilious cast of characters and their irritating hysterics. Yet considering Noé’s self-serious tendencies in even his more inspired and stimulating efforts, the absurdity enacted here can easily get bogged down by its surface theatrics. Given Lux Æterna’s repeated nods to witchcraft and the suffering women who were burned at the stake, Noé, in an interview included with the press notes for the film, was asked about its feminist bent. To call Lux Æterna “feminist” would be an exaggeration, he argues, but says it is “certainly ‘testophobic,’ as [his] male characters are so pathetically overbearing.” True enough, but that attribute is hardly exclusive to the men. “Overbearing” scarcely does justice to the behavior of Dalle’s diva director in particular.
The latter portions of Lux Æterna do grow increasingly tense as tempers flare, stubbornness prevails, caution is thrown to the wind, and subtly unnerving hums saturates the soundtrack. This troubled shoot is reaching a threatening breaking point, and when Noé switches on his trademark strobe effects (the film opens with a Dostoyevsky quote about the joys of an epileptic fit, so be warned), Lux Æterna climaxes in a frenzied, hyper-sensory denouement that finds its three lead witches, Gainsbourg front and center, agonized by the blinding and deafening audio-visual bombardment.
Lux Æterna, which had its premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, doesn’t hold a candle to Gaspar Noé’s best work, though it does represent the worst of his occasionally strained attempts for shock and awe. Even the end credits are unnecessarily haughty. Like the quotations incorporated throughout the film, attributed to “Carl Th.,” “Jean-Luc,” and “Rainer W.,” for example, Noé uses only the contributor’s first name. He compares this decision to the ancient practice of recognizing individuals simply as “Caesar,” “Marcus,” and “Cleopatra,” and, for him, the directors mentioned “are like friends,” hence the informality. A minor sticking point to be sure, but it’s just another affected annoyance. Case in point: “Luis” [Buñuel] gets the final word, with the printing of his famous phrase, “Thank God I’m an atheist.” But by the end of Lux Æterna, I’d thank God the film is only 51 minutes long.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and is a Contributing Editor at Film International. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (December 2021).