Review: Gaspar Noé’s ‘Lux Æterna’ Is His Best Work Since ‘Irréversible’

Translated from Latin, the section of the Roman Catholic Church’s Requiem Mass entitled Lux Aeterna states, “May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord, with Thy saints forever, for Thou art kind. Eternal Rest give to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.”

With Gaspar Noé taking a three-year break between his last two feature-length films, it didn’t seem like he would rush to capitalize off of the success of 2018’s Climax; but, one year later, he returned to Cannes with Lux Æterna, a treatise on the artform that saw Noé at his most experimental. Although transgression might not surprise his audience, no one could have seen a mediation of Demille and Dreyer by way of Warhol and Conrad.

The film is presented in three parts that progressively become more traditional in their form. Opening with the quote from Dostoyevsky, “You cannot imagine the supreme happiness an epileptic feels in the moments before a fit. I would give perhaps my whole life in exchange for a few seconds of that felicity,” Noé attempts to instill this ecstasy within his audience. Repurposing 1927’s The King of Kings, he subjects the biblical epic to an intense flicker while slowly toying with the aspect ratio. Despite the visual assault on one’s eyes, this violent introduction takes on a trance-like form, aided by hypnosis instructions via voiceover. As a matter of fact, despite what some may dismiss as ostentatious nonsense, this introduction to the film is Lux Æterna at its strongest and most sublime. The power of the flicker film is the ability of light to transcend the bounds on the screen, leaving an aura in one’s periphery that is rapturous, to say the least.

Following the monumental introduction, Noé continues to repurpose footage of classic cinema. Haxan and Day of Wrath lay the seeds for the film’s fascination with the plight of women through tales of witch hunts while quotes from Dreyer on filmmaking begin to position the commercial and artistic industries at odds with one another. This section is a bit jarring on first viewing and upon revisiting the film, it still feels like the weakest link. While it’s efficient in its introduction to the film’s primary topics, it lacks the flair that Noé’s reappropriation demonstrated earlier. The purpose only really comes across upon a second viewing and even so, it still feels slightly unnecessary as a bridge between the inaccessible and the overt.

Lux Æterna’s final segment sees Noé take a multi-screen approach as the camera candidly observes Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle playing themselves on the fictional film set of Dalle’s directorial debut. Discussing witches, sexuality within filmmaking, and the clash between commercial and artistic values, the dialogue expresses the core of Noé’s thesis. Using this split-screen approach to observe the occurrences of the shoot simultaneously, occasionally the events will pair up with each other, but most of the time, the technique emphasizes what a catastrophe the film shoot has become as people plot behind each others’ backs solely for their own interests. Noé’s avatar Karl Glusman from Love even makes an appearance as the stereotypical actor-turned-director known all too well in Hollywood, working on a project that seeks to encapsulate the entire human condition. Sounding like a horrid Noé’s imposter, Glusman could be mistaken for Gosling trying to make his own Refn film with Lost River.

The hectic nature of the production projects Noé’s criticisms at full volume. He posits that it is the filmmaker’s job to lift the film from commercial to art. Depicting commercialism as what plunges the shoot into absolute chaos, Noé’s attitude is clear. The success of this criticism does feel kind of flimsy, to say the least. Noé illustrates the film industry as one hundred conceited leeches all trying to corrupt the work of the individual artist. In doing so, his signature brand of absolute nihilistic disdain for humanity makes its presence known. Sexually predatory behavior and a hatred of women rooted in a few characters remind the audience how little regard the filmmaker has for people. This is also where the validity of his criticisms get pretty shoddy as it’s hard to tell whether or not Noé is oblivious to the parallels he draws with himself.

Is Gaspar Noé — a filmmaker whose breakout feature involved a 10-minute long uncut rape scene, whose 3D pornographic film is a textbook example of the male gaze — criticizing the way women are treated on set? The awareness of Noé as to how the film criticizes his own persona is questionable, but its effect is what elevates the film from groan-inducing satire to a unique meditation on the state of cinema and Noé’s own place in it. The director Dalle plays is virulent, wanting only her vision to prevail. Dalle as an uncompromising artist is Gaspar Noé; and Karl Glusman leering at Gainsbourg and Klara Kristin is more Gaspar Noé than James Franco. It’s a muddy conversation Noé’s engaging in as he’s pointing out the pitfalls of his own process whether he intended to or not.

As Noé nears the end of his 65-minute runtime, he employs cyclical form as that what that began the film also ends it. The strobing returns, this time diegetically within the film, as the fictional set reaches Climax levels of disorder. The experience of the flickering passion that introduced the film is just as ecstatic. A phantasmagoric experience in which the flashing red, blue, and green break the boundaries of the film and physically manifest themselves within the screening room.

Lux Æterna may be a transcendent experience but is by no means anything revolutionary for the medium of cinema. Most of the tricks Noé employs are decades old at this point, but he synthesizes them into an experience that is unquestionably his own. It’s vulgar and nihilistic in its assessment of the industry at large while presenting no alternative, aggressively abrasive, and intentionally repulsive. It’s exciting to see someone of Noé’s caliber bring this quantity of Avant-Garde mannerisms to an audience that may be otherwise unexposed to this form of cinema, but depressing as one understands Noé might not make anything like this for a while. Funded by Saint Laurant’s creative designer Anthony Vaccarello, it seems unlikely that Noé will get this much freedom from any studio.

It’s a mess of a structure (see how jumbled my own assessment of the work is) but that’s what one comes to expect from Noé. He isn’t necessarily using precision in his work, more so dumping buckets of paint onto a canvas until something interesting presents itself. It’s not for everyone, but the brisk runtime provokes the curious to at least give the first fifteen minutes a chance.