2022, NR, 52 min. Directed by Gaspar Noé. Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Béatrice Dalle, Abbey Lee, Mica Argañaraz.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 20, 2022
Cinema is a time machine that occasionally goes backward. It's a trick that Gaspar Noé used in his still-controversial international breakout success Irréversible, but it's a trick that's been played on him with his two most recent releases. Vortex, his tragic and nuanced look at a couple in the last days of their lives, arrived in theatres two weeks before Lux Æterna, even though the Argentinian director finished his latest release three years ago.
The order is important, as it's tied up in a vital event in his chronology. Noé had a stroke in 2020, and Vortex has been seen in that context, as the enfant terrible growing up and facing his mortality. Yet while Lux Æterna is undoubtedly a part of his younger, wilder work, it's also an indicator that a change was coming for the filmmaker. It's full of the overblown psychotronic energy of his prior films, but there's a restraint that sets it apart. If anything, the biggest complaint about Noé's earlier films is his determination to shock, often to the detriment of the story. Fortunately, Lux Æterna barely has a story, in any traditional sense. It is, instead, about an event: a film set that plunges into madness. It's a setup that resonates with his drug freak-out fizzle Climax, but while that was style drowning substance, instead Lux Æterna gives those two halves of his creative process equal time.
Indeed, the opening is undeniably a precursor to Vortex: a two-hander, captured on two cameras (each following a separate character and their POV) and projected side by side. Rather than the aging couple of Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun spinning away from each other, this scene captures nothing but intimacy. Two actresses – Dalle and Gainsbourg, playing iterations of themselves – meet on the set of an indie film. It's Dalle's first time directing, and she sits in the back with her fellow actress as they swap war stories about misogyny in the industry, witch trials (the subject of her film), and embarrassing old films and old lovers. Men interject, from desperate young filmmakers looking to con the women into their next project to bored techs looking for directorial guidance. Eventually, the grime of the green room becomes pure blocks of primary color as the production breaks down for increasingly unclear reasons.
Lux Æterna is barely a film – even Noé has called it an essay – but then it's not meant to be complete. Created in five days on Yves Saint Laurent's franc (one has to wonder what they thought they were getting), it's a discussion, not a conclusion. Every theme is one that Noé has clearly thought about a lot, but he's not solidified those thoughts into an opinion. Dalle and Gainsbourg's conversation about abusive sets, about nudity, about women in cinema, is absolutely enthralling, like watching an early D.A. Pennebaker on-the-tour-bus music documentary. It's all in contrast to the audiovisual carnage of the second half, where absolutely nothing happens but it does so in a combustive display of son et lumière, with Noé seemingly rejecting the blood and sweat and cum of his earlier seedy body horror. At the same time, the second half feels so dominated by the visuals and the sounds that they obfuscate Noé's overall purpose, and no number of clips from Dreyer's Day of Wrath or quotes from Godard fix that. There's an unshakeable feeling that the bigger the screen and louder the sound system, the better Lux Æterna becomes. Not bad for what was supposed to be a 15-minute fashion commercial.