Lux Aeterna

Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg

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.

The idea is that Dalle is directing a film 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 that’s 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 getting her hair and make-up done. “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 being undressed in full view of the crew, the idea being that, because they are models and getting undressed in a crowded backstage is par for the course, 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 set out to match, updating Dreyer’s medieval aesthetic to the 21st century, the film’s opening, shocking image. Job done.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Intruder

Louis in Tahiti

Claire Denis’s remarkable film The Intruder (L’intrus) was first released in 2004, rolled out worldwide in 2005 and promptly disappeared. In some countries it was never shown at all; in the US, for instance, it’s only in 2021 that people are getting a chance to see it.

It is a deliberately oblique drama, constructed almost as a series of questions – where are we? who is this guy? who’s that strange woman? and what the hell is Béatrice Dalle doing in this film, and why for only for a handful of seconds?

Denis has said that she’s done this deliberately, having taken the original idea – an adaptation of an essay by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy – and then removed whole chunks of it, a pre-edit edit, to make a film with a dreamlike, impressionistic quality. “Like a boat lost in the ocean drifting” is how she has described it.

She achieves her effect by building in layers, a scene here, a beat there, and gradually details start to cohere into what looks like a story. A rich man who lives in the Alps, where he has a lover and an estranged son, heads off on something of a global gap year for the senior citizen, leaving his beloved dogs behind, stopping off in Korea to get what might be an illegal heart transplant, and finally pitching up in Tahiti, where he has another son from a liaison many years before.

Nothing is ever really explained in terms that explicit. The man is called Louis Trebor and is played by Denis regular Michel Subor, in his late 60s when this was made, but also appearing as a young man thanks to Denis’s re-use of footage from Paul Gégauff’s 1965 movie Le Reflux, in which the then young Subor starred. Trebor/Subor, the echo is deliberate.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s writings about his voyages provided the backbone of Le Reflux and is an inspiration here too, as are the global wanderings of Paul Gauguin, who also wound up in Tahiti like some late-life alien intruder.

Béatrice Dalle
The Queen of the Northern Hemisphere

What are we watching? Well, the soundtrack by Stuart Staples (of Tindersticks) is nudging us towards a thriller, and Subor’s powerful presence, his cryptic meetings with various unexplained people and the human tendency to take signals and fit them into a grid nudge us that way too.

Then, after the cold and aloof Louis has his heart transplant, it looks like we might actually have entered the realm of the vampire movie. Is Louis so rich that he simply will not die? Where did he get the heart from? Has some unfortunate given up the ghost so he might continue?

Or a Bond movie even – glamorous women keep popping up, seemingly for no obvious narrative purpose, there’s a race in the snow on horseback, the exotic locations, there’s at least one murder, some nudity, and a never-explained cloak-and-dagger subplot that seems to involve refugees crossing the border from Switzerland into France.

Whatever you call it, it’s mesmerising, or infuriating, depending on how go with this sort of thing. There’s an ineffable quality to Denis at her best, as in films like Beau Travail and Vendredi Soir (which made a woozily compelling drama out of two people sitting in a car).

But The Intruder is even more uncompromising than either of those, working through effects rather than plot reveals, layering one image or mood on top of another, the enigmatic Subor – good guy? bad guy? – holding the whole thing together with the same invisible skill that Denis is deploying in her direction.

It helps, too, that everything looks so fabulous, thanks to regular Denis DP Agnès Godard, who’s worked with the director since her 1988 feature debut, Chocolat.

Béatrice Dalle gets the last few seconds of the film, leering madly as she dogsleds across the icy wastes. Her character is called The Queen of the Northern Hemisphere, which almost lifts the film into another genre entirely, the fantasy. What a way to exit.

The Intruder – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021