Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Yellow Veil Pictures releases the film in theaters on Friday, May 6.
Ever since Gaspar Noé cranked up his ambition with “Enter the Void” 10 years ago, the filmmaker has divided audiences with unruly, disorienting filmmaking techniques. Frames blink in and out, cameras float and speed through unexpected spaces, and neon palettes pulsate. His recent spate of movies often yield overwhelming experiences closer to the visceral terrain of avant-garde cinema than the narrative traditions he roots within the mayhem. His style can be a mixed bag of visual provocations, but his showmanship remains admirable for its bold swings each time out.
It’s hard to imagine that Noé could serve any master other than himself, and it comes as no great surprise that his recent assignment to make a 15-minute commercial for Yves Saint Laurent went awry when Noé turned it into his own weird thing: “Lux Æterna,” a 50-minute psychedelic mockumentary about a film shoot gone wrong, distills Noé’s talents to a more palatable serving size. Anyone who appreciated the craft of “Enter the Void” but found the running time unwieldy will be grateful for this much tighter dose.
As with last year’s terrific LSD dance film “Climax,” the new project unfolds with a busy ensemble until it erupts into chaos in the closing moments, but it’s also something of an essay film for the ruminative director. Loaded with intertitles citing Noé’s filmmaking heroes, “Lux Æterna” functions as a savvy indictment of the commercial industry and a wry comedy about filmmaking’s collaborative nature.
It’s also over and done just when it really gets started, a trippy sketch of a project overloaded with stroboscopic effects that could very well send some viewers into epileptic seizures. Still, as a minor work, it provides an enjoyable snippet of rambunctious formalism that puts Noé in a category of his own.
Beyond that, “Lux Æterna” is also a welcome showcase for Béatrice Dalle, best known as the seductive vampire in Claire Denis’ “Trouble Every Day,” who plays a variation of herself in the throes of making a hectic directorial debut. The project is called “God’s Work,” and it stars Charlotte Gainsbourg (also playing herself) in a post-modern tale of witchcraft. But first, Noé dispenses with a prelude about the filmmaking process — clips from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Day of Wrath” alongside quotes from the filmmaker himself about separating the art from the industry, establishing the conflict to come. In between setups, Dalle and Gainsbourg chat for minutes on end, sitting next to each other and yet seen in split screen for no apparent reason other than for Noé to remind audiences who’s in control.
There’s a certain dopey charm to watching the two actresses poke fun at their personas and the vanity of their work. “I’ve never seen you in shit films,” Dalle tells Gainsbourg, who says, “I’ve done loads.” That answer foreshadows the sequence to come, an outrageous Joan of Arc-inspired green screen set piece with a leather-clad Gainsbourg buried under reflective shades. “Bonfires are super-sexy,” a giddy Dalle says. “It ends badly, but it’s uber-cool.”
Indeed: As the movie builds to a lighting glitch that turns the film shoot into an inadvertent dance club, Noé and regular cinematography master Benoit Debie deliver a naughty look at what can happen when branded content flies off the rails. Before it gets there, however, “Lux Æterna” unfolds as a dark satire, with dashes of “Living in Oblivion” and “8 1/2” as the director and star roam around the set and grow frustrated with its crowded atmosphere. Other familiar faces fly by, including Noé’s “Love” star Karl Glusman as a wannabe filmmaker who keeps pitching Gainsbourg his project, and Félix Maritaud as a producer losing his patience with his newbie director.
Gainsbourg zips around the set, pushing off a nosy journalist and juggling calls from her troubled child, while Dalle freaks out again and again until it’s unclear if she has any idea what sort of movie she wants to make. Watching their outbursts has its own unique appeal, though Noé’s recurring split screen device often makes it hard to follow everything happening at once. Which is obviously the point: “Lux Æterna” suggests that Noé’s exaggerated filmmaking ambitions have led him to contemplate the paradoxes of his chosen art form, which demands a degree of collaboration at odds with the whims of a singular vision. But the nature of the challenge appears to motivate him, as he cites Rainer Werner Fassbinder with an intertitle late in the game: “When the pressure gets too strong, I turn into a filmmaker.”
Boy, does he ever. The closing moments of “Lux Æterna” are such a disturbing outburst of light, color, and 3-D illusions they might make even stereoscopic auteur Ken Jacobs avert his eyes. Ironically, however, this very act of destabilization gives Noé an ideal vessel for presenting his mission statement. This snippet of a movie implies that art thrives on chaos, and that Noé wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Lux Æterna” premiered in the Midnight section at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.