Lux Æterna (2022)

Something finally clicked in my brain during the opening 20 minutes of Climax where I’m now on-board with everything Gaspar Noé is putting out.  It’s not the most dignified position to be in, I know, but I like to think it’s because Noé is hitting a new visual & emotional maturity in his recent work – not that I’m backsliding into a juvenile edgelordism that would make his usually flashy, trashy ways appealing. This year, Noé has released a pair of cursed sister films that stretch out De Palma’s signature split-screen sequences into feature length.  In Vortex, that side-by-side framing is used as a somber visual metaphor for the ways an aging couple can live separate, isolated lives in a shared, intimate space.  In Lux Æterna, Noé drops the thematic pretense and instead simply deploys the split-screen format to actively attempt to melt the audience’s minds.  It’s the most authentically “psychotronic” movie I’ve experienced in a while, a signal that Noé still has a little Enter the Void pranksterism left in his bones even if time has softened his sharpest edges.

Lux Æterna opens with arthouse actresses Charlotte Gainsbourg & Beatrice Dalle casually chatting about the cultural misogyny that overlaps between the modern film industry & Old World witch trials.  We then see that misogyny in action. Dalle struggles to exert directorial control over a chaotic film shoot of a ritualistic witch burning – featuring other film fest regulars Abby Lee, Karl Glusman, and Félix Maritaud as self-parodic caricatures.  As Dalle’s authority is constantly undermined by her cast & crew, all semblance of a functional workplace falls apart horrifically and spectacularly, recalling other recent feature-length stress-outs like Black Bear, Birdman, and Her Smell. Only, Noé uses that familiar set-up to conjure a vivid vision of Hell, likening the scenario to Häxan more than to other behind-the-scenes film set dramas.  This culminates in a stunning technical breakdown of the set’s LED screen backdrop, which flashes alternating strobes of red, green, and blue in a blinding finale designed to be suffered more than enjoyed.  In Lux Æterna, filmmaking is witchcraft, in that pure-evil supernatural forces can be summoned from the most mundane rituals, and women are always the ones who are burned.

In Vortex, Noé reckons with the pains & limitations of his body, particularly the ways his heart & brain will inevitably fail him after years of hedonistic drug abuse.  Here, he reckons with the pains & limitations of his profession. Lux Æterna is a horror film about the stress of behind-the-scenes film set squabbling, a nightmare about a bad shift on the clock.  Since it was sponsored by the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house, though, it still has to make those shifts from Hell seem cool, and it ends up being just as much an aesthetic celebration of strobe lights, leather jackets, and sunglasses worn indoors as it is a workplace nightmare.  It never returns to the laidback mood of its opening, where two badass women chat about movies & witchcraft, but even its eye-scorching conclusion is beautiful & hip in its own vicious way.  It’s an all-around stunning experience, one that mercifully lasts less than an hour to spare the audience unneeded suffering.  It also helpfully opens with a warning for anyone vulnerable to epileptic fits, so make sure to consult your doctor before subjecting your brain.

-Brandon Ledet

Watcher (2022)

According to my count, there have now been four significant riffs on the classic paranoia thriller Rear Window in the past year, each starring freaked-out, disbelieved women in the James Stewart role.  That trend could a response to the increased social isolation during the pandemic making us simultaneously agoraphobic and nosy about strangers’ lives (now seen entirely through the digital windows of social media apps).  Or it could just as likely be that Hitchcock’s’ influence is eternal, and several Rear Window projects have happened to bottleneck in their distribution paths at a weirdly apt time.  Either way, Chloe Okuno’s debut feature Watcher is done a huge disservice by this sudden deluge of Rear Window riffs, maybe even more so than its unintended sister films.  Understated & unrushed, Watcher is a little too lacking in scene-to-scene tension and overall novelty to stand out in its crowded field (bested by both Kimi & The Voyeurs in those rankings, surpassing only The Woman in the Window).  I appreciate the icy mood it echoes from post-Hitchcock Euro horrors of the 1970s, and the stern narrative follow-through of its ending is almost enough of a shock to make up for the preceding dead air, but I’m not convinced that’s enough to make it especially noteworthy or even worthwhile.

Maika Monroe (It Follows) stars as an out-of-work actress who moves to Bucharest at the behest of her workaholic boyfriend (Karl Glusman, Devs).  Alienated by her endless days alone in the apartment and her inability to speak Romanian, she becomes more of a quiet observer than she is an active participant in her own life.  Worse yet, a neighbor she can see from her apartment window has taken to staring back with an intense fixation on her every move, even when she leaves the relative safety of her new home.  The actress is convinced her stalker is a neighborhood serial killer known as The Spider, so she sends the few men in her life to violently threaten him & interfere before his obsession gets out of hand.  As their patience for humoring her suspicions wears thin, Watcher becomes a fairly typical Believe Women thriller.  Its only distinguishing details, really, are the fashions & architecture of its Eastern European setting and the cold, stubborn brutality of its conclusion.  It’s thematically rich in its intricate gender politics, especially in the way Monroe is dismissed & infantilized by the men in her social circle and endangered by demonstrating even the most benign friendliness to male strangers. The tonal & visual expressions of those themes are just a little too calm & well-behaved for the movie to stand out as anything special.

My fixation on Watcher‘s lack of novelty is likely just as much of a result of seeing it in a film festival setting as it is a result of its recent competition among other, flashier Rear Window updates.  Watcher played at this year’s Overlook Film Festival among dozens of similar low-budget genre films with their own abundance of pre-loaded comparison points.  To my eye, it’s the one that most suffered from its dedication to long-running genre tradition (at least among the nine titles I watched at the festival), precisely because it’s the one that was least interested in attention-grabbing novelty.  And yet it’s the one title that was simultaneously playing in AMC theaters elsewhere in town, while most of the bolder, weirder Overlook titles I caught will get nowhere near screens that size.  I appreciated the opportunity to see Watcher in a theatrical environment, since its distribution through Shudder means most audiences will force it to compete with smartphones for their attention when it inevitably hits streaming.  It’s a pretty good movie with admirable political convictions and an effectively eerie mood.  It’s just also nothing special, really, at least not when considered in comparison with its competition – Overlook, Soderbergh, Sweeney, or otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet