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.