Tuesday 2 February 2021

Lux Æterna (Gaspar Noé, 2019)

Amazingly, the last Cannes Film Festival took place way back in 2019, and it was during this edition that Gaspar Noé's Lux Æterna was first unleashed; in September 2020, during a welcome if brief window in which cinemas were permitted to reopen, the film received a theatrical release in France.  For those of us who didn't manage to catch the film on the big screen, it's been an extremely long wait, but last month Lux Æterna began to surface on several VOD platforms; while consuming the film in this manner isn't exactly ideal, your eyeballs will probably thank you by the time you reach the end of the mild-mannered Noé's latest visual assault on audiences.  In all seriousness, Lux Æterna is a film that fully warrants its epilepsy warning, so please keep this in mind before viewing.  When the film received its French premiere, it was preceded by a Noé short titled The Art of Filmmaking, a stroboscopic essay film that is borderline unwatchable, and I do wonder what condition the audience were in when they braced themselves for the main feature. 

Yet to refer to Lux Æterna as a feature is slightly misleading, as it runs to a little over fifty minutes.  Noé initially received funding from Saint Laurent to shoot an advert for the luxury fashion house, but came up with something that was much longer than, and some way from, what was ordered; luckily, YSL were very happy with what their money had been spent on.  Noé actually shot enough footage to make a feature film of typical length, but Lux Æterna's liberal use of split-screen effectively halves the film's runtime.  As such, the film is closer in length to Noé's uncompromising Carne - a work that's now a full thirty years old - than it is to any of his five full-length films from I Stand Alone through Climax.  While the addition of The Art of Filmmaking would have allowed the programme to be classified as a feature film in France, the short isn't included in the version currently streaming, so we are best to consider Lux Æterna to be a medium-length work, albeit one that proves to be way more interesting than many films twice the length.  While its fierce strobe effects prove to be something of an endurance test, Lux Æterna stands as Noé's tamest film (it's all relative), as it eschews both the juddering violence and sexually explicit material we've largely come to expect from his work.

As with every Noé film from 2002's Irreversible on, Lux Æterna features the work of expert cinematographer Benoit Debie, and the brilliant Belgian's work here provides yet further proof of both his extraordinary ability and the essential part he plays in forming Noé's now-trademark aesthetic.  Lux Æterna, like Irreversible - which was recently re-edited into a chronological version that is now available on Blu-ray - culminates in a sensory overload, but at least this time around the audience doesn't face the challenge while still fresh from a pummelling by two of the most brutal sequences in modern mainstream cinema; Lux Æterna, despite instilling the rising sense of unease we've long since come to associate with Noé's films, is at its heart a warm, rather playful affair, one in which all of the cast and crew are credited by just their first names, which stands in sharp contrast to Irreversible's opening (closing?) credits, wherein those on both sides of the camera were coldly, simply denoted by their surnames.  

Lux Æterna is a meta-movie in which actresses Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle play themselves; Dalle is directing a film about witch trials, and Gainsbourg is the star.  Yet Dalle is faced with many obstacles, ranging from meddling producers to a highly subversive cinematographer, plus there's Karl Glusman, from Noé's 3D movie Love, as a rather desperate type who's apparently flown in from LA just to pitch his new project to the put-upon Gainsbourg.  For the climactic witch-burning scene of Dalle's film, models Abbey Lee and Mica Argañaraz flank Gainsbourg as the three are tied to stakes in front of a green screen.  But a strange lighting glitch occurs, and Lux Æterna winds to its fiery conclusion via a full-bore RGB nightmare.  These closing moments are really the film's raison d'être, and they deliver exactly what we've come to expect from Noé, which is a real experience; he's a filmmaker who's always determined to evoke a visceral response from his audience.  While Noé always appears chiefly interested in what his viewers think - or, more accurately, feel - when they're caught up in watching his work, his prior films are all extremely memorable, and the infernal, invigorating Lux Æterna, in which Noé delivers his thrills with typical aplomb, is thankfully no different.

Darren Arnold

Images: UFO Distribution