Lux Æterna (2019)
I should preface this review with a note: I’m an unshakable fan of controversial French director Gaspar Noé. Despite his many attempts at provocation, he has yet to offend me with his themes, images, or stylistic choices, largely because said choices consistently push the boundaries of cinema in admirably imaginative ways.
If you aren’t a Noé fan, don’t expect his latest film, “Lux Æterna,” which DOPE caught at Cannes Film Festival, to change that. It is, at its core, an essay film expounding on the techniques he’s explored in his previous work. Dizzying long takes, psychedelic audiovisual spectacles and aimless conversations abound in this densely-packed piece.
I should also warn readers: this is not a narrative film in any conventional sense. Running at a tight, all-too-brief 50 minutes, it’s composed of three distinct pieces. I would call them acts, but that term applies more to conventional narrative structure and insinuates that this film is remotely concerned with clear exposition, conflict and resolution. It’s not.
Title cards featuring quotes by directors and philosophers frame each section. How pertinent these quotes are to the film itself is up for debate, but this too is often the case with Noé’s dramatic title card usage. Regardless of their pertinence, at least one of these cards serves an essential purpose. The very first title we see warns us (though likely not in legally sound terms) that what we are about to see could very well induce seizures — this is not a warning to be taken lightly.
Section one of the film lays the groundwork for semi-narrative in a charming, accessible way. It features two legends of French cinema, actresses Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg, having a candid and absorbing conversation about their experiences in the film industry. It becomes clear that Dalle will be directing her first film somehow related to witch trials and the act of burning witches at the stake. Gainsbourg will star.
This segment is told in split screen even though the actresses are sitting right next to each other, creating a disconnected effect suggesting two distinct perspectives on the same conversation. Anyone familiar with the actresses’ long and complex careers should find this conversation fascinating. Pieces of conversation make clear reference to their previous work and some juicy tidbits revealed that have already become objects of excited speculation (“Which 16-year-old ejaculated on Gainsbourg’s leg during a shoot?” The world wants to know). Both women have seen their share of sexism, have found themselves objects of male desire and subsequent exploitation in front of and behind the camera, and have emerged with a sense of grace and humor about their experiences. As the movie progresses, however, it becomes clear they haven’t fully healed from the traumas and violations inflicted upon them in their younger days. And who can blame them?
Another title card brings us to section two: the film shoot itself. Told mostly through a single handheld shot, we are led through a chaotic film set full of shifting power dynamics, angry actresses, and Machiavellian producers. Though it’s no secret these days, this section of the narrative emphasizes how shitty things can be for women in the world of cinema, no matter their station. This section is the most conventionally narrative in structure, to be sure, and it suggests that the film is building toward something momentous and climactic in the third segment.
However, in true Noé form, the final act in entirely unpredictable. Someone on set appears to be sabotaging Dalle’s film, and during the stake-burning scene set up in segment two, the lights and sound shift into a pulsing, flashing light show. The final ten minutes of the film are so physically demanding that a good 50% of the audience watching with me in Cannes up and left.
Those who can sit through it may enter a strange, hypnotic, ecstatic state of existence. It’s somehow both exhausting and meditative, but also so aggressively good at getting Noé’s thematic points across. Without giving too much away, I will say the realization of what Noé is exploring hit me like a ton of bricks. I was moved to fits of tears and laughter. I left shaken to my core and charged up with a renewed appreciation for the capabilities of fil, and an even greater appreciation for Noé as a director