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

La Bouche de Jean-Pierre

Mimi and Jean-Pierre

La Bouche de Jean-Pierre (sometimes known as Mimi) was the first film Lucile Hadžihalilović directed and in its short 52 minutes’ running time it introduces the theme she’d more fully explore in later films – the arduous, abusive, coercive, manipulative way that human beings are tamed, trained, civilised, call it what you like. The work of the philosopher Michel Foucault, in particular Discipline and Punish – which deals with social control – seems to lurk in the background of all of Hadžihalilović’s films, all of which are extraordinary, often in a quiet and unassuming way.

In this one the action opens with a woman taking an overdose, witnessed by her daughter, Mimi, who ends up being taken into care by the woman’s sister, Solange (Denise Aron-Schropfer), who squeezes Mimi into her tiny apartment in a high-rise block, where a frequent visitor is Jean-Pierre (Michel Trillot), Solange’s boyfriend.

The story of La Bouche de Jean-Pierre is the story of Mimi learning lessons in life, all of which could be described as abusive, from the opening shot of mother taking the pills, on to the coolly offhand way she is treated by Solange and Jean-Pierre, culminating in an encounter with the boyfriend that gives the film its name, which translates as The Mouth of Jean-Pierre.

Mouths feature prominently in the film – as the mother takes her overdose, the camera is in close-up on her lips. Later, Hadžihalilović repeats the shot, except this time it’s Mimi’s mouth we see. She’s learned how to “behave”.

Jean-Pierre puts his finger in Solange's mouth
Jean-Pierre and Solange

For good measure Hadžihalilović adds a little epilogue at the hospital where Mimi also eventually ends up, just to make sure we understand not just that Mimi’s abuse is continuing, but that she herself eventually becomes complicit in it.

Depressing and disturbing it all undoubtedly is, but also powerful. Playing Mimi is Sandra Sammartino, a girl of maybe ten who’s never made a film since. Perhaps the whole experience put her off for life. It is undoubtedly an unsettling watch, but Sammartino really puts in an exquisite performance as the quiet and watchful Mimi, always on edge, playing with her dolls in a whisper like someone who’s expecting bad things to happen any second and doesn’t want to attract attention to herself.

Gaspar Noé is heavily involved, as he is with most of Hadžihalilović’s films, and she with his (she co-wrote his Enter the Void, for instance, one of the best films of the last 20 years). Here he’s billed as being in charge of editing (though she’s in charge of “assembly”), framing (with Dominique Colin down as being responsible for lighting) and artistic direction, and some of the responsibility for the ostentatious, gothic look of the film must be his (though where “cutting” ends and “assembly” begins is a very vague line). Jump-cuts and dramatic blackouts/whiteouts contrast hugely with the sort of semi-documentary filming style you might associate with Ken Loach. There are a lot of deliberately drab yellows and nauseous greens in this film.

La Bouche de Jean-Pierre was made in 1996 and it would be another eight years before Hadžihalilović came back with Innocence, which is a case of more of the same, at greater length, with a bigger budget, a larger cast (including Marion Cotillard) and a more oblique modus operandi. It’s probably her best film to date, but really, if you want to know what this unusual director is all about, La Bouche de Jean-Pierre makes for a pithy if pitiless introduction.

La Bouche de Jean-Pierre – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022