In a move that all but says “We’re back, and we mean fucking business,” the unofficial centerpiece of this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival was not one, but two brand new films by French firebrand Gaspar Noé, screened back to back on a Saturday night.* The first, Vortex is a bit of a departure for the director, a meditation on death and aging far more humane than his usual work, if no less punishing (I saw and reviewed the film at last year’s New York Film Festival, and while I admire it greatly, I’m in no particular rush to watch it again). Those longing for the snotty, abrasive Noé of Climax, meanwhile, are sure to be sated by his other new film. If Vortex represents a moment of sober reflection for Noé, Lux Æterna is a return to speed-fueled delirium, and a reminder that the director is still one of the most dangerous working today.
Following a brief introductory sequence of clips from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s witch hunt drama Day of Wrath, Lux Æterna sets its sights on two actresses (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle, playing fictionalized versions of themselves) on the last day of a shoot. The production appears to be a remake or homage to Dreyer’s film, with Gainsbourg and other actresses being burned at the stake against a hellish, rear-projected backdrop. That backdrop, however, may not be necessary, as the set appears to exist within the seventh circle of hell: the director spends more time bragging about working with “Jean-Luc” than paying attention to the mise-en-scene; one visibly uncomfortable actress objects that her contract said nothing about topless scenes; an oh-so-LA hanger-on won’t stop hounding Gainsbourg to read his script, even as she receives some potentially disturbing news about her young daughter. And just when things seemingly can’t get any more chaotic, the rear projection malfunctions, assaulting cast and crew with an eye-melting strobe of red, green, and yellow (I should probably mention at this point that viewers with a sensitivity to intense flashing lights should never, under any circumstances, watch Lux Æterna).
At 53 minutes, Lux Æterna is either a very short feature or a very long short, which can only be considered a rare act of mercy on Noé’s part. Even more than, say, Uncut Gems, watching Lux Æterna feels like suffering a prolonged panic attack. Actually, two panic attacks: as in Vortex, Noé divides the film into a split screen for the bulk of its running time, with Gainsbourg generally occupying one side of the frame and Dalle or one of the set’s other poor souls in the other. Like Vortex, this is a deceptively complex balancing act; the simultaneous audio emanating from each side of the screen, while overlapping, they never quite drown each other out. But unlike that film, which mostly takes place in a small, quiet flat, Lux Æterna is teeming with life, with characters constantly drifting in and out of frame (and occasionally switching from one to the other). The result is something of a symphony of anxiety, its side-by-side nightmares playing out in a discordant sort of harmony.
Would I recommend Lux Æterna? That’s hard to say; I don’t know I’d recommend any Noé film to anybody who I’m not personally sure is constitutionally up to the ordeal. But I will say this: though I walked out of the theater in something of a daze, I didn’t feel as emotionally bludgeoned as I did leaving Vortex or Climax. Though obviously abrasive, there is a puckish sense of punk-rock glee to the proceedings. One can sense Noé leaning into his role as cinematic enfant terrible and thoroughly enjoying himself, a sense underlined by occasional onscreen epigrams from similarly anarchic filmmakers, identified by first name only (in addition to the aforementioned “Jean-Luc” and “Carl Th,” watch for “Werner,” “Luis,” and “Rainer W.”). Then there’s that gloriously frenetic closing sequence, as much laser show as narrative, its eye-popping colors eventually taking on a near-hallucinatory effect (though I can’t stress enough: if you have difficulty with intense strobing effects, please do not watch this movie. I’m serious). I will sheepishly admit that I have a harder time making it through midnight movies than in my younger days, but I can say I was in no danger of falling asleep by the end of this one.
Like hard liquor or straight espresso, Gaspar Noé is an acquired taste, and I’m not sure he’ll ever be in my personal pantheon. But every once in a while, when I need a good shock to the senses, he’s just what the doctor ordered. Lux Æterna, then is that perfect microdose, a condensed portion of the director’s unseemly charms, with just the right amount of unpleasantness without fully crossing into outright trauma. Most of all, it reminded me what I love about BUFF: the thrill of staying out too late with an assortment of similarly deranged movie freaks and seeing something fucked up. There is no streaming equivalent, and I’m so happy it’s back.
*- Oddly, and apparently by coincidence, the Coolidge held a midnight screening of Noé’s Enter the Void that very same night.
dir. Gaspar Noé
Part of the 2022 Boston Underground Film Festival – click here to catch up the rest of the Hassle film team’s coverage!