Gaspar Noé’s pint-sized Lux Æterna is an exercise in self-aggrandizement disguised as a feminist deconstruction of the injustices of the film industry. Running a brisk fifty-two minutes, it is roughly divided into four sections, each of which explore issues like misogyny, performance, and the tension between film as a fine art form and an industrial practice. It opens with a brief archival montage showing several torture devices used during the medieval period to interrogate suspected witches; with puckish irony, Noé assures us not to worry, as such barbarianism were the product of an early, primitive society, and we advanced, intellectually enlightened individuals are surely above that depravity. The film then cuts to the iconic witch-burning scene from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Days of Wrath, accompanied by an explanatory title card explaining that Dreyer ensured that the authentic expression of terror on the women’s faces were ensured by forcing them to sit atop the stakes for two full hours.
And so the central metaphor of Noé’s project is revealed: the entertainment industry is the modern-day equivalent of the medieval witch hunt, as woman are photographed, exploited and abused on screen as spectacle for the consumption of a carnivorous mass public. Conceptually, it’s a solid notion for a feature, if a little on the nose. But Noé sinks it with his shameless tendency towards self-justification; throughout the medium-length feature, Noé includes quotes from great artists, all of which revolve around the notion that sacrifices must be made in the pursuit of a grand artistic vision (representative example: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s claim that “In order to become a director, you must become a dictator”). It’s a similar philosophy to the one which fueled Lars Von Trier’s atrocious The House That Jack Built — the exploitation of women may be unfortunate, but it’s a necessary part of the process of crafting a grand auteurist vision, and the performers should happily submit themselves fully to the whims of their authoritarian director like sacrificial lambs.
The second part of Lux Æterna unfolds as an extended dialogue between Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle (both playing themselves), as they talk about the ingrained sexism of the entertainment industry. They discuss the indignity of indelicately managed nude scenes, the way that movie insiders (such as producers and agents) use their power to try to lure them into bed, and the all-pervasive influence of the sexist paparazzi cameras. The screen is split into two halves, each a static close-up, allowing our eye to wander freely between the performer who is talking and the performer who is absorbing their words. It’s an interesting formal conceit in theory, but one which Noé does not use to its fullest potential. Although the scene makes a few astute observations about systematic sexism, the entire segment concludes on an unfortunate note of self-justification from a filmmaker known for his questionable sexual politics and demanding treatment of actresses (the most famous sequence in his career remains the grueling one-take, ten-minute rape sequence at the centre of Irreversible). As the scene concludes, Dalle recalls a difficult shoot in which she was forced to climb naked up a hill in front of a crowd of two hundred male extras. The experience may have been humiliating, but she realized the brief turmoil was worth it when she saw the high quality of the finished project.
On a purely aesthetic level, Lux Æterna is admittedly impressive, but on an ideological level, it’s repellent.
If the second portion is a theoretical discussion of the misogyny embedded in the entertainment industry, then the third illustrates it in practice. Retaining the split-screen approach — but abandoning the stasis for two bustling tracking shots — the film follows Dalle and Gainsbourg as they make their way through a busy, poorly organized film set (the visual cacophony of Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls is a clear reference point). Dalle, growing increasingly tired with the poor working conditions, takes on the self-appointed role as the organizer of the set. Although she fills the role better than any member of the crew, her aggressive, demanding demeanour soon inspires the ire of the director and executive producer, who hire a photographer to follow her every step in the hopes of catching her making a wrong move so that she can be forcibly removed from the project.
The more humble Gainsbourg is hounded by a young, delusional amateur director desperate to sign her for his next project (when she brushes him off down, he bitterly monologues about the short shelf-life of actresses prized for their beauty compared to directors), an invasive journalist for a rag called Cinema Eye magazine, desperate to secure insider details of the set, and countless make-up and wardrobe personnel. So swamped with work is Gainsbourg that she cannot even find the time to tend to the demands of her distraught daughter who (she learns over phone) has been subject to a brutal knife attack at school. Models are treated like cattle in the dressing room, forced to undress in front of a large crowd of crew — being told that “It’s not like we haven’t seen you naked before” — and then she is told that she must perform an unexpected topless scene, in opposition to the stipulations of her contract.
Near the beginning of Noé’s feature, a title card appears affixed with a quote attributed to Dreyer: “The challenge of the film director is to elevate film from an industry to an art.” It is in this section that this dialectic split between the petty, practical concerns of filmmaking and the artistic vision come to the fore, with Noé clearly viewing himself as belonging to the good side of the fight. “Fucking union extras,” Dalle exclaims at once point — and the sentiment clearly belongs to Noé, the self-imagined visionary auteur who must protect his vision from the hordes of petty bureaucrats, sycophantic social climbers, and pedantic technical crew who threaten to ruin the artistry.
In the final act, we finally discover the shot that the crew are working towards: a witch-burning scene in front of a green-screen upon which a stormy night-time sky is projected. Gainsbourg and two of the models are mounted on crosses as a crowd of extras thrust lit torches into the air. At this point, the tone switches from black comedy to deadly serious, as the dull practical processes are put aside, and the matter of crafting the actual image takes precedence. The director-within-the-film (an obvious Noé stand-in) positions his camera to centre Gainsbourg perfectly, with a reverse angle through the viewfinder positioning her chest so that it aligns perfectly with the cross at the centre of the grid, explicitly framing Noé’s leading lady as a figure of self-sacrifice in the service of something greater (specifically, her director’s artistic vision).
This idea is literalized even more overtly in the film’s final moments, as the lights in the studio malfunction, a mysterious loud throbbing noise omits from the speakers, and the scene descends into Noé’s characteristic, strobe-lit visual chaos. As the concrete details of the scene break down and the screen is overwhelmed by a fully abstract series of colours, the two models on either side of Gainsbourg scream in terror while she closes her eyes in ecstasy as her physical form is increasingly subsumed into the fabric of Noé’s imagery. On a purely aesthetic level, it’s admittedly impressive, but on an ideological level, it’s repellent.
The 72nd Cannes Film Festival runs May 14, 2019 – May 25, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.