Gaspar Noé’s Lux Æterna is a sometimes brutal assault on the senses

Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in the infamous French filmmaker’s treatise on cinema.

After premiering at the Cannes 2019 film festival, Gaspar Noé’s Lux Æterna soon entered a COVID-imposed hell. Two years later, the film is finally in theatres across North America, including special screenings in Montreal.

At just over 50 minutes, Lux Æterna opens with a montage of images from Häxan (1922) and Days of Wrath (1943), two haunting parables about witchcraft. As the film begins with the main “story,” two legends of French cinema, Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg, discuss acting, sex and sorcery. Rather than a wide shot, they’re shot in split-screen. They’re close enough to touch and the effect is intimate and jarring. 

Soon, though, the privacy of this moment gives way as two men enter the scene. As they enter, the split-screen temporarily dissolves, and the broader scope of the movie comes into focus. Dalle and Gainsbourg are on the set of a film falling apart at the seams. Dalle acts as director, and Gainsbourg is one of the stars. The film’s action is interrupted by title cards featuring quotations from some of cinema’s greatest artists, and Noé has described the film’s inspiration as a “modest essay about beliefs and the art of filmmaking.”

Sorcery and light lay at the heart of this vision as the recurring images of witches return. Noé leans intensely into his most fantastic impulses, creating a world of alchemy and persuasion as a chaotic witch embodied by Dalle spellbinds a doomed production. After the more sombre prelude, Dalle takes on forceful energy as she screams and rages through failed scenes and relationships. Nothing is going as planned, and her tenuous leadership is falling apart.

The film alternates between tomb-like and womb-like atmospheres. The air seems thin, used up by panicked performers and crowded frames. The continual use of split screens and eventually triptychs contribute to a sense of claustrophobia that engulfs and overwhelms. Noé’s preference for coloured light imposes on much of the action a hellish red light that evokes, on the one hand, the sinewy interiors of the human body and, on the other, the climbing flames of a witch-burning. Creation and destruction, Noé seems to suggest, work hand in hand in the making of art.

Despite the short run time, Lux Æterna brims with action and momentum. Paranoia reigns on a set filled with untrustworthy and self-serving characters who disturb the possibility of peace. Infighting and miscommunications weaken the director’s vision. Shots are ruined, and scenes fall apart due to battling egos and confused side-players demanding attention and guidance. The film within a film captures the hellish act of creation and how it brushes against the possibility of transcendent results. The miraculousness of cinema is that even the worst behind-the-scenes can lead to something beautiful and even spiritually enlightening. 

The film’s momentum leads to shooting a “witch-burning” for the film within the film. A warning to anyone with photosensitivity or epilepsy: something goes wrong and a red, green and blue strobe light flashes for an interminable sequence. Even at home, it’s brutal to watch; infuriating, sickening and improbably beautiful. The sequence brings to the fore the very nature of cinema: frames rushing through a camera. It captures the power of light and the very construction of colour. In a sequence that ought to be terrifying, the burning of witches at the stake, Noé manages to shock in a way that representational filmmaking has long failed to do. 

Lux Æterna fundamentally feels like Noé is working through his feelings and thoughts on film and its history. It’s a compelling and rich text that begs multiple viewings while also challenging an audience to sit through the final stretch even the first time around. While hardly his best work, it might be his most revealing as it peels back the illusions and framings involved in creating his films. Though fantastical and fictitious, it nonetheless suggests an emotional core to his creative process, particularly the battle between art and industry, id and ego, man and monster. ■

Lux Æterna, directed by Gaspar Noé

Lux Æterna opens in Montreal theatres Friday, May 20.

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