When Gaspar Noé releases a new film, discussions are inevitable. Whether and how the short movie is less than an hour long LUX ÆTERNA fits into the work of the controversial filmmaker, we reveal in our review.
OT: Lux Æterna (FR 2019)
Charlotte Gainsbourg (playing herself) agrees to play a witch in her colleague Béatrice Dalle’s (also playing herself) directorial debut. The two have calm conversations about historical sexism, their careers, sexual experiences and their view of the world of cinema until the stress of the day of filming catches up with them – and they are completely absorbed: the crew is anything but prepared or in a good mood. Behind the scenes there are annoying people who have no business being there. And then there is a breakdown that attacks the synapses…
At the beginning is the quote. A quote about the enormous happiness that would precede an epilepsy attack. This is the unmistakable style of cinema provocateur Gaspar Noé (“Irréversible”, “Climax”), to preface his film with a warning. This is urgently needed. Because what follows the quote is only a few minutes from the Danish fake documentary “The Witch” from 1922, in which Benjamin Christensen speaks about the witch hunt in an informative style with immense artistic freedom. What follows is a longer passage in the reddish semi-darkness behind the scenes of a French film set in 2019, while two well-known women from the non-mainstream (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle) have a friendly conversation; From which they are torn to face the escalating production stress. But then that’s nothing. And the light. And the nothingness. And the light. And the nothingness. And the light. In frenetic succession. For minutes. Accompanied by a constant, caustic whistling sound. And the exhausting babbling, nagging and moaning on set. Epilepsy Trigger – The Movie!
As in various other films by Gaspar Noé, colors also play an important role in “Lux Æterna”.
The fact that an ambulance was parked in the immediate vicinity of the cinema during the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival 2019 was not a high-profile PR stunt. But rather responsible precautions (with certainly a PR effect taken into account), because of all the films with frenetically flickering light sequences in recent years, this is the most frenetically flickering light sequence that flickered frenetically. Festival director Thierry Frémaux announced “Lux Æterna” with the phrase “This is neither a short nor a feature film, but a Gaspar Noé film.” Even if the approximately 50-minute stumbling towards a pure synapse attack really falls between the common, perceived definitions of short and feature film and, according to the sober definition, this is undoubtedly a Gaspar Noé film (after all is it is a film by Gaspar Noé), we would reply that on a perceived level it is just “a bit of a Gaspar Noé film”. And Noé would hardly deny that in the film the perceived perception trumps the sober processes.
“Even if the approximately 50-minute stumbling towards a pure synapse attack really falls between the common, perceived definitions of short and feature film and this is undoubtedly a Gaspar Noé film according to the sober definition, we would reply that it is “On a perceived level it’s just “a bit of a Gaspar Noé film.”
The signature is there: the infernal red tint that Noé loves to immerse his films in. The stylized dialogues in which the characters, with the eloquence of creations from later Lars von Trier films, do not give presentations, but revolve so loosely around related strands of thought that it becomes unclear how much was printed in advance and how much was confusedly improvised, with the appearance of the greatest self-confidence that this is how it should be. The recurring text panels with classifying comments, which Noé has already used several times, also run through “Lux Æterna”, this time with selected quotes from directors about their profession. Noé selects these quotes so faithfully to his previous filmmaking persona and uses them so intuitively that at least the author behind these lines thought a minute before a text panel on the topic of “putting your own signature on a film” appears in “Lux Æterna”. : “Ah, the film is taking shape, Noé’s handwriting is slowly becoming clearer.”
Starring: Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
But: At the same time, “Lux Æterna” seems as if we only got half a Noé film with it. Yes, it is provocative to deliberately let your film lead to a minute-long epilepsy trigger. And provocation is part of Noé’s creative identity. But this is a shallow provocation. And that’s below Noé’s level. For example, in “Irréversible” he forced us to witness a rape filmed in one take – and it should not be forgotten that the film was made in a cinematic climate in which this crime was often used as a quick plot driver. Back then, the focus was far too rarely on misery and suffering, which Noé rebelled against in a consistent (if contentious) way. Noé’s medium-length film lacks such subtlety: the end of “Lux Æterna” is a borderline experience, but not a narratively inevitable one like the events in “Climax”, nor a dramaturgically underpinned one like the terrible violence in “Irréversible”. The flickering lights do not grow out of what was previously shown or meant, but are simply a technical glitch on the set that came out of nowhere in the film – and are therefore the most stale escalation imaginable that Noé could think of. If the basic thesis of the film is “Making films is an immense, unmanageable chaos, a dance between euphoria and exhaustion – like a seizure!”, this is a sobering, weak conclusion to Noé’s thesis paper. And not the consistent, daring conclusion of the lead-in.
“The ending of “Lux Æterna” is a borderline experience, but not a narratively inevitable one like the events in “Climax,” nor a dramaturgically underpinned one like the terrible violence in “Irréversible”.”
The start is still promising. Analogous to “The Witch,” which does not take the truth seriously, Noé blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction. The cast and crew play distorted versions of themselves, which inevitably makes you wonder if the conversation between Charlotte Gainsbourg (“Every Thing Will Be Fine”) and Béatrice Dalle (“The Happy Prince”) expresses her true beliefs and includes real anecdotes from her career. Dalle, who has a number of hard and unforgettable genre films in her CV, emphasizes that she doesn’t have much interest in entertainment cinema herself, but that she doesn’t like it when people make fun of those who get something out of it. And Gainsbourg talks about filming a sex scene during which her scene partner accidentally ejaculated on her leg. Everything is just as conceivable as reality as it is as a Noé brainchild. As soon as Dalle and Gainsbourg pull themselves together from their unnatural conversational and resting position, they encounter one exaggerated, life-like archetype and cliché after another: actresses who are confronted on set with the fact that their no-nudity clause is being violated. Self-important youngsters who want to win over experienced stars for their own project in an idolizing tone of voice, and then mock them after they are rejected. An older cinematographer who sighs about working with much bigger directors and doesn’t understand the plot of this film. And and and…
“Quiet on set!”
Noé doesn’t gain anything from this (here also bilingual) hustle and bustle that hasn’t already been said in cinema-about-filmmaking, but he captures it in his unmistakable aesthetic, which is hypnotic and repulsive at the same time. Partly presented in split screen, the camera (Benoît Debie) wanders through the rooms as if by magic, whirls around, shows people barking and lying at awkward angles, and makes the filmmaking process unsexy in a way that you can’t look away from. It is a half-truth and a half-misery that belongs in a film that begins with the provocative quote chosen by Noé. He just doesn’t bring all these elements together with the cutting edge that should follow. As if “Lux Æterna” was either too long for its execution or too short for its ambitions. What a half-silent, half-disappointing half-identity for a half-length film whose ending knocks so hard on the synapses.
Conclusion: Noé completists will recognize enough of the incomparable director’s idiosyncrasies in “Lux Æterna” to appreciate the film. Nevertheless, this epilepsy trigger falls between two stools.
“Lux Æterna” is available on DVD, Blu-ray from May 14th and on VOD from April 29th.