How does one describe Gaspar Noé and his films to the uninitiated? “Unconventional” barely scratches the surface of what covers the vast swath of aggressive, assaulting, psychedelic, hypersexual, ultra-violent, anxiety-ridden, nihilistic, and overwhelming trademarks that pervade Noé’s body of work. His films are a walking trigger warning (this film’s trigger warning is for those with epileptic sensitivity, which I would say is a major caution for all of his films, but exceedingly so here), but rarely do I find the films to be of the new school of thinking for “edgy” filmmakers making extreme content solely for the act of being extreme. Noé always finds a unique angle to explain his jarring decisions as a filmmaker in his films. He’s not trying to trigger you just to piss you off, but rather, trying to find an audience’s tick, something that changes drastically for each film in his deeply unpleasant canon. From Irreversible’s vomit-inducing cinematography and graphic violence, to Enter the Void’s slow, psychedelic, ethereal sadness, to Climax’s frantic, panicked terror of the unknown, it goes everywhere you don’t want to go. Ironically, because of that, I find myself going where Noé tells me to go, despite my best efforts knowing it’s bad for my health.
Lux Æterna follows the fictionalized account of real-life actress Charlotte Gainsbourg (portrayed by, you guessed it, Charlotte Gainsbourg) on the set of a horror film about witchcraft directed by actress Béatrice Dalle. Initially plagued by standard woes of a film set: rushed schedules, technical problems, creative clashes, etc., the tone of the set begins to slowly, but noticeably shift as each of these issues begins to individually escalate into traumatizing moments of workplace horror.
Lux Æterna is an odd beast of a film in that it is first and foremost a commercial for legendary fashion house Yves Saint Laurent, who funded the film. I can’t say it’s a particularly “good” advertisement for the brand as it’s not apparent apart from the credits and knowledge of the production that it even exists as this, but it makes me pine for the idea of more companies paying controversial filmmakers to make short horror films as indirect advertisements of their products. I want David Cronenberg directing a horror film for Walmart or Ari Aster taking on a feature length psychological thriller for Delta Air Lines. The capitalistic possibilities are endless.
At only 51 minutes long, Lux Æterna straddles the line between short film and feature film in a way no one can really pin down. The film, however, moves at the pace of a feature film, beginning with an extended sequence (more like 30% of the entire film) of Gainsbourg and Dalle discussing the state of filmmakers in the modern age and how they specifically deal with difficult sets through charming anecdotes. It’s a surprising start to a film that I believed was going to get to business right away, but if anything, it really puts into perspective how astutely Noé paces out his films as these 15 minutes flash by in a pleasant, comforting instant as we see a soft, vulnerable side to two actresses often thrust into intense, uncomfortable roles, only for the scene to break apart as we explore the dysfunction and disorder of this truly cursed film set. The film grinds to an anxiety-inducing halt as each problem, displayed in a dizzying split-screen effect, reveals itself to the cast and crew. It creates the inescapable terror of an unsafe work environment, something that most people can absolutely relate to on a personal level, that devolves into utter chaos. It strikes a similar tone to Climax in its gradual, but dizzying descent into madness with the increasingly eye-straining visuals of Enter the Void. It’s a genuinely stressful experience that taps into both the mundane and the cosmic, melding them into a freaky little monster I don’t think I’ve seen before.
If anything, I actually wish Lux Æterna, in all its anxiety-ridden, strobing glory, was fleshed out to a full feature-length film. There are flourishes and tastes of even more uncomfortable, inescapably stressful situations with actors Karl Glusman and Abbey Lee that could’ve added even more depth to the film’s commentary on cinema culture in the modern age. Perhaps that wouldn’t contribute to the film’s purposeful unconventionality it wants to create a message from, but there’s something about this fascinating film that could’ve been even more fascinating had it been given a bit more padding in places that showed promise, something I don’t often say in the realm of ever-increasing runtimes in films. Regardless, as its own thing, Lux Æterna is a unique experience of a film, and perhaps might be a good entry point for those looking for a taste of what Noé offers as a filmmaker without having to completely dive in. There is his trademark winking humor amongst the terror, and never once, even in his new flourishes, does this ever not feel like a Noé vehicle through-and-through, of which I remain a massive fan. Take that as you will.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
In New York on May 6th, and LA on May 13th, 2022, with a national rollout to follow.
For more information, head to the official Lux Æterna website.