Only Gaspar Noé, the arch-provocateur of French cinema, would make a fashion ad like Lux Aeterna. Commissioned by luxury fashion house Saint Laurent, the film is a 51-minute improvised experimental art project featuring a burning witch and ending in an extended, pulsating nightmare of strobe light and sound. It might leave audiences feeling bullied, elated, amused, bored, or all of the above, but will it make them feel like they want to drop a thousand bucks on a purse?
They will certainly have the impression of coming to see a film by Gaspar Noé. The director has a taste for extreme content and unconventional cinematic techniques, and he likes to turn up the audience and the critics. He made a name for himself with the years 2002 Irreversible, a drama told in reverse chronological order and centered on a traumatically graphic extended rape scene. He continued with the disembodied first-person head-trip Step into the void. Then he cast porn actors in Love, a navel-gazing erotic drama, so it could shoot non-simulated sex scenes in 3D – including, naturally, an extreme close-up of a penis ejaculating directly into viewers’ faces. You had the idea.
Noah is one of the world’s most legendary authors, and sometimes it can seem like the most offensive thing about his movies is how desperately he wants them to shock audiences. But he has undeniable gifts. Its sleazy, sinister, neon-lit aesthetic, crafted with its regular cinematographer Benoît Debie, has a seductively decadent glamour. (Surely that’s what Saint Laurent was after.) And he’s a master at the editing suite, where he invariably finds unusual ways to piece together his twisty sequences and startling images into cinematic crescendos that can make your heart pound. .
Lux Aeterna (meaning “eternal light” in Latin) is a real-time, behind-the-scenes drama about a film production spiraling out of control. Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg, both icons of Gallic cool, play versions of themselves: Dalle cast Gainsbourg in her directorial debut, about a medieval witch burning but struggling to control a set chaotic. The producer colluded behind Dalle’s back to replace her with the director of photography. Gainsbourg, distracted and harassed by journalists, make-up artists and a budding young director, receives an upsetting phone call from her home just before filming the crucial fire scene. Then the lighting and rear projection rigs go haywire, and things get really weird.
The most infuriating part of the film is the very beginning, where Noah chooses to lecture the audience by displaying old film footage (from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1943 witchcraft drama day of anger) and whimsical quotes about cinema as art from Dreyer, Jean-Luc Godard and others. A quote from Dostoyevsky about the sheer happiness people with epilepsy experience before a seizure foreshadows the seizure-inducing spectacle that Noah would later present. Ironically, this should serve as a warning that all viewers with photosensitive triggers should turn off the movie.
This self-absorbed introduction is immediately followed by a lovely passage in which Dalle and Gainsbourg have a relaxed, unscripted conversation on set, sharing wild anecdotes from their careers. Dalle, who became a wild child sex symbol in the 1980s when she was cast in the erotic drama Betty Blue, matured into an incorrigible and tough force of nature. His crude digressions, hoarse laugh and gap-toothed smile are utterly irresistible. Gainsbourg, daughter of scandalous lounge singer Serge, is languid and stringy, with the build of a model, a worried face and a flinty eye. She is simply one of the coolest people in the world. It’s a privilege to see these women shoot shit.
Oddly, this passage from the film, and the bickering, farce and misadventures that ensue behind the scenes, is reminiscent of nothing so much as an episode of Call my agent!, the Netflix comedy-drama about Parisian talent agents. Everyone who is anyone in the French theater appeared as themselves in Call my agent!including both Dalle and Gainsbourg; The Dalle episode is a special delight. The spectacle is frothy, but as a portrait of how the French film world sees itself, it’s quite shrill, and it’s also still relevant when it comes to the treatment of women in the industry.
That seems at least partly to be Noah’s topic here as well. When Dalle and Gainsbourg talk about their experiences with sad humor, he wisely steps aside. Elsewhere, he subjects them and other film-within-a-film women to a barrage of indignities and undermining from attention-seeking men until they break. . He points out that Dreyer (who made The Passion of Joan of Arcone of the great masterpieces of silent cinema) got its “wonderful” shot of a tormented woman burning at the stake in day of anger leaving her tied to her for two hours. He asks Gainsbourg to take the agonizing phone call about his daughter next to a prop of a disembodied male torso; she pushes her waxy mass absently as she speaks.
Throughout, Noé uses split-screen to give viewers two simultaneous views of the action. Sometimes it’s two angles on the same stage; sometimes the view splits into two traveling shots, conveying the layered chaos of the production. Sometimes one of the shots is filmed by an assistant whom the producer has asked to follow Dalle with a video camera and record any mistakes he may have made. The leering intrusion is commented on, but everything is also on screen.
Like Lux Aeterna built to its climax, the screen dissolves into an almost unwatchable blizzard of strobing red, blue and green, with Gainsbourg writhing in discomfort in the center of the frame and an off-screen male voice exulting within. Noah makes his point – and gets his shot. As always, he has his cake and eats it too. You’ve seen women burn at the stake until your eyes bleed. Now buy the dress.
Lux Aeterna is currently playing in theaters.