‘Lux Æterna’ explores ideas of gender, power and spectatorship on a witchy midnight movie set | Movies | Detroit
The witches provide the common thread of Lux Aeterna, a 51-minute French-language experimental work by Gaspar Noé that debuts at Cinema Detroit this weekend. (Produced in 2019, it appears to have scored a US release in conjunction with his more recent feature, the dementia-centric Vortexcurrently playing in a brief series at the historic Howell Theater, but nowhere nearer at the moment.)
For a director best known for his efforts to bring primal and psychedelic sensory experiences together, Noé’s works carry a strong penchant for Brechtian interruption, frequently punctuating their action to step out of themselves and address their viewers. In Lux, it’s becoming more than a trend; getting close to the experience of an on-screen character is largely irrelevant. Here, instead, Noah’s attentions are directed towards an almost direct address to the viewer and his own experience throughout, making the metatext – focused primarily on the experience of producing and viewing works like Lux – the film‘s main raison d’être.
That might be for the best, as Noah has never exhibited great naturalism, often struggling to deliver dialogue and characters that feel believable as more than devices, even when taken on their own terms. . (In Luxscattered sub-plots, this weak point is more evident than ever). He has long been more comfortable with the evocation of more totalizing experiences: sensations like dissociation (Step into the void), ecstasy (Climax), or abjection (Irreversible), each effort being marked by a taste for the extreme stemming from what seems, at least for this writer, to come from a sincere place. Here, in what the filmmaker calls an “essay,” the focus is entirely on the more abstract, experiential process of creating and consuming art. The normally liberating pretense of fiction is largely dropped by the end of the film’s opening scene.
After an intertitle quoting Fiodor Dostoyevsky (on the “supreme happiness experienced by an epileptic in the moments preceding a seizure”), a warning about the film’s flashing lights, and a few nods to Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer, who occupied both witches and female martyrs, we meet two performers on the stage who give Lux its setting. Finding Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg lying in front of a fireplace as actresses (essentially themselves) on the set of a midnight film retreading Dreyer’s themes, the film oscillates between split-screen and single-screen framings that highlight each woman separately or the fire is in front of them, carving up the physical space of the film in what might look like a multi-camera shot setup: a way of “revealing” the production of the scene. When Dalle asks at the start of the film “Have you been burned at the stake?”, the fire that creates an intimate conversation space for them becomes a sort of omen, mixing the film’s own narrative material with the actresses’ own accounts (often paralleled via neighboring executives) of their experiences as women in the industry. Though launched languidly, the scene brings a good-humoured address to the exploitation, embarrassment, and more surprising rewards of on-set labor, achieving a sparkling air of candor. Rare with Noé, it allows each actress to breathe, to laugh, to gesture freely with a dialogue that appears at least semi-improvised; it probably is Luxthe best part of the movie.
From this lowly summit, Lux Aeterna launches into more familiar territory, chronicling the increasingly chaotic behind-the-scenes of a film set: a setting populated by cheerful misogynists, creative egomaniacs, clockwork technicians and desperate industrial climbers. For viewers of cinemas of the last century, such an erased satire will not be too familiar, trampled as it is by works ranging from 1952 The wicked and the beautiful to 1996 Irma Vep, albeit with varying degrees of sharpness. Still, cinematographer (and regular Noé collaborator) Benoît Debie makes the most of the film’s oscillating visual scheme, forcing the shots laid out side by side to clash or harmonize, as the sound mixing forces them to do the same. Moving between locker rooms, hallways and alternate sets, most bathed in low-intensity neon lights, Lux Aeterna plays with ways to address his audience as his pace and pulse steadily quickens throughout.
Such a progression from the mundane and everyday to the highly abstract will be familiar to Noah’s own viewers as well – especially those in 2018. Climax, which saw the film’s behind-the-scenes drama escalate into an intense whirlwind, aligned with the acid trip and an inevitable eventual meltdown. As gender tensions escalate between the film’s female performers and its predominantly male team leaders, Noé strives to make LuxThe statements of surround the medium of which it is a part, as well as the industrial dynamics dating back to its origins. Addressing various forms of voyeurism, exploitation, and creeping, layered forms of inequality, in part suggesting that they may well be eternal, the film’s flight into abstraction that ensues may well be interpreted as a sort of of aesthetic cowardice.
When a red-green-blue color palette bursts into the flow of filming, it evokes not only the three-stripe technicolor and tinted plates that once marked silent films, but also more contemporary processes of pixelated digital photography. In suggesting that the medium’s long-term power disparities may be as entrenched as these aesthetic processes spanning technology, however, LuxThe creator of is kind of having his cake and eating it too, offering a critique of the processes he’s a part of. There is also a kind of ego to it; by claiming to be part of a grandiose and often exploitative historical cycle alongside the filmmakers he invokes (masters of the form including Dreyer, Jean-Luc Godard or Luis Buñuel), Noé both flatters himself and asserts that he has no greater obligations to its cast and crew than its many predecessors.
However, such two-handed processes are somehow at the heart of the satire, and this pessimism somehow seems more welcome than the view of sap artists who suggest that history is a march of progress. In its best moments, LuxAwareness of the industry’s longstanding power dynamics seems to be giving it something. In the scenes where its actresses are framed in isolation, away from the men – whether together or on the phone – they are allowed to give the film its most compelling moments, overcoming the weaker elements of what surrounds them to the both in film production and on screen. In this way, Lux is part of an aesthetic tradition that it questions and claims at the same time: certainly very old. But as has fortunately often happened in this vein, the directorial ego at play here and the gender dynamics at play fail to absolve the work of Noé and his collaborators from its best and most touching parts. .
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