Only Gaspar Noé, the arch-provocateur of French film, would make a fashion ad like Lux Æterna. Commissioned by the luxury fashion house Saint Laurent, the film is a 51-minute, improvised, experimental art project featuring a staged witch burning and ending in an extended, throbbing nightmare of strobing light and sound. It might leave audiences feeling brutalized, exhilarated, amused, annoyed, or all of the above, but will it leave them feeling like they want to drop a thousand dollars on a handbag?
They will certainly feel like they’ve just watched a Gaspar Noé film. The director has a taste for extreme content and unconventional moviemaking techniques, and he loves to get a rise out of audiences and critics. He made his name with 2002’s Irréversible, a drama told in reverse chronological order and centered on a traumatically graphic extended rape scene. He followed it up with the first-person, disembodied head-trip Enter the Void. Then he cast porn actors in Love, a navel-gazing erotic drama, so he could shoot unsimulated sex scenes in 3D — including, naturally, an extreme close-up of a penis ejaculating directly at viewers’ faces. You get the idea.
Noé is one of the most self-mythologizing auteurs in the world, and sometimes it can seem like the most offensive thing about his films is how desperately he wants them to shock audiences. But he has undeniable gifts. His sleazy, lurid, neon-lit aesthetic, crafted with his regular cinematographer Benoît Debie, has a seductive, decadent glamour. (This is surely what Saint Laurent was after.) And he’s a master in the edit suite, where he invariably finds unusual ways to assemble his meandering footage and startling images into cinematic crescendos that can leave the heart racing.
Lux Æterna (which means “eternal light” in Latin) is a loose, real-time backstage drama about a movie production that’s spinning out of control. Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg, both icons of Gallic cool, play versions of themselves: Dalle has cast Gainsbourg in her first film as director, about a medieval witch burning, but is struggling to control a chaotic set. The producer is conniving behind Dalle’s back to replace her with the director of photography. Gainsbourg, distracted and harassed by journalists, makeup artists, and a young would-be director, gets an upsetting phone call from home just before she’s due to shoot the crucial stake-burning scene. Then the lighting and back-projection rigs go haywire, and things get really freaky.
The most infuriating part of the film is the very beginning, where Noé chooses to lecture the audience by displaying old film footage (from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1943 witchcraft drama Day of Wrath) and fancifully typeset quotes about film as art from Dreyer, Jean-Luc Godard, and others. A Dostoyevsky quote about the pure happiness that epileptic people experience before a fit foreshadows the seizure-inducing display Noé is going to put on later. Ironically, it should serve as a warning that any viewers with photosensitive triggers should turn the film off.
This self-regarding introduction is immediately followed by a lovely passage in which Dalle and Gainsbourg have a relaxed, unscripted chat on the 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, has matured into an incorrigible, leathery force of nature. Her foul-mouthed digressions, rasping laugh, and gap-toothed grin are totally irresistible. Gainsbourg, daughter of the scandalous lounge singer Serge, is languid and stringy, with a model’s frame, a careworn face, and a flintiness in her eye. She’s simply one of the coolest people alive. It’s a privilege just to watch these women shoot the shit.
Weirdly enough, this passage of the film, and the backstage squabbles, farce, and mishaps that follow it, are 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 French acting has appeared as themselves in Call My Agent!, including both Dalle and Gainsbourg; Dalle’s episode is a particular delight. The show is frothy stuff, but as a portrait of how the French film world sees itself, it’s pretty acute, and it’s also always on point when it comes to the treatment of women in the industry.
This seems at least partly to be Noé’s topic here, too. When Dalle and Gainsbourg talk about their experiences with rueful humor, he wisely gets out of the way. Elsewhere, he subjects them and other women on the film-within-a-film to a barrage of indignities and undercutting from attention-seeking men until they snap. He points out that Dreyer (who made The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of the great masterpieces of silent cinema) got his “wonderful” shot of a tormented woman burning at the stake in Day of Wrath by leaving her tied to it for two hours. He has Gainsbourg take the distressing phone call about her daughter next to a prop of a disembodied male torso; she prods at its waxy bulk absently as she talks.
Throughout, Noé uses split-screen to give viewers two simultaneous views of the action. Sometimes it’s two angles on the same scene; sometimes the view splits into two roaming handheld 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 she might make. The leering intrusion is being commented on, but it’s also all up there on screen.
As Lux Æterna builds to its wig-out 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 offscreen male voice exulting in it. Noé makes his point — and gets his shot. As ever, he has his cake and eats it too. You’ve watched the women burn at the stake until your eyes bleed. Now buy the dress.
Lux Æterna is now showing in theaters.