Lux Aeterna review: Gaspar Noe’s seizure-inducing essay on acting, suffering for art and #MeToo

Prahlad Srihari

Jun 11, 2019 17:26:09 IST


"I don’t do drugs; I am drugs," Salvador Dalí once famously said. After all, his paintings did possess a surreal, almost hallucinogenic, quality. Gaspar Noé's films too have a similar quality to them. Sometimes, the effect they induce is of the fun, socialising or altered-state-of-consciousness variety. Sometimes, they are more like a recipe for a poor batch of acid concocted at Burning Man. So, the uninitiated are likely to suffer an all-round bad trip — full of nightmarish visions, paranoid delusions and uncontrollable anxiety.

Lux Aeterna review: Gaspar Noe’s seizure-inducing essay on acting, suffering for art and #MeToo

Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lux Æterna. Festival de Cannes

For those familiar with Noé's previous work, his latest concoction/provocation — Lux Æterna — will not exactly shock you. But it will leave you with an internal conflict as the mind struggles to tear your eyes away from images that may just trigger an actual epileptic seizure — the second before which Noé (and an accompanying Dostoyevsky quote) suggests there's a fleeting moment of absolute pleasure.

Following the trigger warning, Noé kicks things off with a montage of dramatic vignettes of witches being persecuted, with scenes from Häxan and Day of Wrath — two of his favourite films from Danish directors Benjamin Christensen and Carl Theodor Dreyer respectively.

He then plunges us into the extra-wide split-screen frames of a conversation between Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg — both playing versions of themselves. Dalle is more plain-spoken, divulging all her fears, anxieties and vulnerabilities while Gainsbourg mostly plays the role of a patient listener. The two actresses exchange personal anecdotes of nightmarish shooting experiences with directors-turned-dictators, their views on religion, and the eroticism of witch burning. Dalle is in fact about to direct Gainsbourg in a film, where the latter's character will be burned alive for witchcraft.

From here, the film transcends into a metafilm of a whole other kind as Noé goes behind the scenes of the impending shoot — tracking Dalle and Gainsbourg in separate long takes in split-screen. Dalle is at loggerheads with her producer and DP, who are both plotting to get her fired by having an on-set photographer record her each move. Gainsbourg gets an unsettling phone call from her young daughter, which leaves her perturbed. But to make matters worse, she is persistently harassed by an ambitious young director (Karl Glusman, star of Noé's 3D sex romp Love), who hopes to cast her in his new film. Meanwhile, in various other parts of the set, models complain about being asked to do topless scenes despite clear stipulations in their contracts; journalists are being their intrusive selves; and the technicians and other crew members are all yelling and whining, adding to the pandemonium ahead of the filming of the witchburning sequence.

The chaos eventually crescendoes into a purely sensory experience — as Noé punishes us with a giddying assault on our eyes and ears with furiously flashing neon strobe lights and piercing sirens.

Gaspar Noé, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle pose during the photocall for Lux Æterna at 2019 Festival de Cannes.

Gaspar Noé, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle pose during the photocall for Lux Æterna at 2019 Festival de Cannes. Twitter/Getty

Noé has always revelled in creating such sensory experiences that celebrate the primacy of the visual medium that is cinema. In his previous film, Climax, Noé produced a frenetic and relentless battery of visceral images — the kind of which you had never seen before on screen (and could only be truly relished on a big screen). Sadly, its follow-up feels like a film conceived after an hour-long pot high.

The Argentine-French filmmaker has cemented his reputation as a cinematic outlaw in the past two decades. While his more compelling films confront the viewers' dark inclinations with their endless brutality and grotesque decadence, the others fall flat on its hyper-realistic face, the victim of one too many wearisome shock tactics. Starting from I Stand Alone to Climax, each film has been more transgressive and/or tasteless than the last. He enjoys bombarding us with disorienting visuals, but they are rarely rooted in anything substantive.

With Lux Æterna, Noé uses the film-within-a-film narrative to expose what happens behind the camera on a film set, where workplace harassment and predatory behaviour have been normalised by an oppressive male machinery. He highlights the challenges faced by female filmmakers in an industry, where male directors, writers, producers, casting directors and journalists still rule the roost.

In the opening conversation, Dalle reveals an unpleasant shooting experience where she had to get naked in front of leering men while Gainsbourg recounts an incident when a 16-year-old actor ejaculated on her leg during a sex scene without her consent. These intimate stories seem like possible real-life experiences, but they both agree they were worth it because they were in the service of making great cinema. Even though Dalle wants to make sure Gainsbourg doesn't suffer-for-art on the set of her film, the climax reveals their actions and ambitions are still governed by the whims of men. And if the women don't submit to their whims, the men become bitter (like Glusman's budding director, who turns disdainful when Gainsbourg continues to avoid him).

So, is Noé taking to task the many visionary filmmakers throughout history who have been excused for their abusive behaviour for the sake of art? It is not clear.

Is he using witchcraft as a metaphor for how women's bodies are abused, harassed and sexualised for mass consumption — thus becoming a battleground for resistance and centre for sexual politics? Does he deem the practice of witchburning then as one aimed at regulating women’s sexuality and cementing patriarchal power structures? That's not clear either.

Abbey Lee and Mica Argañaraz also play version themselves in Lux Æterna. Twitter

Abbey Lee and Mica Argañaraz also play versions of themselves in Lux Æterna. Twitter/Festival de Cannes

Paradoxically, however, when Dalle and Gainsbourg diss what they call "entertainment movies", they sound like nothing more than Noé's mouthpieces.

To intellectualise this hollow cinematic thesis on the treatment of women in the film industry, Noé intersperses various scenes in the film with disruptive quotes from cinematic luminaries like Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Luis Buñuel. But with each film, he just seems to be descending into a monotonous spiral of frustrating pretentions.

At his best, Noé's work reminds you of Alejandro Jodorowsky at his most deranged — turning the transgressive into the transcendent as he breaks all the rules in order to achieve a new order of cinematic experiences.

At his worst, his transgressive excesses give you a damn headache, if not induce a hellishly bad acid trip.

Lux Æterna premiered out of competition in the Midnight Screening section at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

Updated Date: Jun 11, 2019 17:54:11 IST