Lux Aeterna

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Gaspar Noé’s Lux Aeterna (or Lvx Æterna in its original Latin-script form) is a short film about the shit women have to put up. Like the old ironic joke about the light at the end of a tunnel probably being an oncoming train, Noé’s “eternal light” (the translation of lux aeterna) is probably being emitted from the fire built to burn problematical women as witches.

The first image is from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (made in 1943, but with looks from 1443) and is a remarkable shot of a woman being placed on top of a ladder, from where she’s dropped down at speed into a massive fire. The actress, Noé’s intertitle card informs us, had to sit on top of that ladder for two hours – “no wonder her face bore a real expression of horror.”

And cut, in split-screen, to Béatrice Dalle and Charlette Gainsbourg, as versions of themselves, talking as actresses might talk about witch-burning scenes they’ve done. From there the talk turns to the more general theme of actresses having a hard time of it from men – the producer always wants a bit more tit or leg showing than the reality of the situation would demand. Gainsbourg recalls an actor in a love scene ejaculating over her by accident, in his youthful horniness. Dalle recounts something similar happening to her, but in a less professional situation. And so on.

This conversation is supposedly taking place as the two women prepare for a film. Dalle is directing and Gainsbourg is going to be in it. They’re about to shoot the witch-burning scene but in order to do that… more shit. All from men. The producer’s decided he hates Dalle and is going to have her forcibly removed from the set; a cocky American actor (Karl Glusman, star of Noé’s remarkable paean to physical attraction, Love) is trying to rope Gainsbourg into some never-specified creative project all about his ego rather than art; a journalist is trying to have “a word” and getting in the way while Dalle tries to block the upcoming scene and Gainsbourg is in hair and make-up. “Not now!” they both shout, at different times. The DP, another male, and keen to tell anyone who’ll listen that he worked with “Jean-Luc”, has his own ideas about how the film should be lit and is mansplaining things to the point of sabotage.

The split-screen finale
A split-screen evocation of incineration

Meanwhile, Gainsbourg’s fellow witches, played by Abbey Lee and Mica Argañaraz, are getting naked in full view of the crew. They’re models, so getting undressed in a crowded backstage is par for the course, the logic goes. There’s nothing really to see here. Right.

You looked tired, the makeup artist tells Gainsbourg. Her time is nearly up, the bitter Glusman tells one of his entourage. The nanny rings Gainsbourg with some child-rearing dilemma. A guy with a small camera is following Dalle, capturing supposed unprofessionalisms to use as evidence against her when she’s finally booted off her own shoot.

Noé piles it on, and keeps piling it on, working it to a fever pitch like Ravel’s Bolero. It’s not easy being a woman, especially as you’re meant to do everything the guy does, except backwards and in heels (as Ginger Rogers memorably described partnering Fred Astaire) – meaning you gotta look good and feminine while you’re doing it.

The spirit of Lucile Hadzihalilovic – Noé’s regular film-making partner and a producer this time out – hovers over this essay on the control of the female of the species. And if the female won’t be controlled – burn her.

Noé and his regular (brilliant) DP Benoît Debie get as close cinematically as they can to licking flames in the climactic scenes, where Gainsbourg, Lee and Argañaraz are tied to stakes, while an onslaught of coloured lights strobes away, switching from one vivid hue to another, on single, split and triple screens while the soundtrack hums and throbs, crackles and whistles.

And so it ends, in an epilespy-inducing collage of flashing light and piercing noise, with three screaming women writhing in agony on their stakes, like grim pole-dancers. Noé has matched the opening image for shock value, updating Dreyer’s medieval aesthetic to the 21st century.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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