“For what ‘Lux Æterna’ most succeeds in is its capacity for a truly ecstatic horror“
As the lights dimmed at Brooklyn Horror Fest’s screening of Gaspar Noé’s Lux Æterna—the film’s US premiere—the unthinkable happened: my glasses broke. With no time to spare, I hung them uselessly from my shirt collar by their one remaining arm, gripped the world’s tiniest screw tightly between my fingers lest it roll into the oblivion of the Williamsburg Cinema, and prepared myself for a viewing unlike any other. And it certainly was: despite the film’s half-blur, Lux Æterna is far and away the best thing I’ve seen at the festival this year. With its chaotic double- (and sometimes triple-)split screen, raging film set chatter, and marvelous stroboscopic finish, I left the theater with an unexpected new conviction: to the bonfire with my glasses.
The film—an offering at the feet of C.T. Dreyer and his witch-hunt lament Day of Wrath (1943)—brings the witch-burning subgenre to new and maddening heights by throwing it headfirst into a dysfunctional film set. As director Béatrice Dalle (as herself) struggles to keep her production from careening towards disaster, the set assaults the viewer in its constant eruptions of anger and visual overstimulation. The screen, split down the middle, follows Béatrice screaming at press, her producers threatening her with revolt, her actresses shouting down costume designers, and rapacious hangers-on picking apart her and her lead actress, Charlotte Gainsbourg (also herself). Often, the split screen’s two cameras capture the same moment from different angles, an effect of one’s eyes darting around the room independent of one another, like marbles rolling in an empty head.
One of these cameras belongs to an unknown intruder, stalking the film set and capturing Béatrice and her crew in their most vulnerable and exposed moments of rage, self-doubt, and anxiety (Béatrice, of course, attacks this man as well). As proxy for the viewer’s unwelcome gaze, this mysterious cameraman forms the lynchpin of the film’s underlying grand analogy: the treatment of women in the film industry—be they directors, leading actresses, or extras—is a purge, the exposure of their bodies and raw hearts much like the spectacle of a burning at the stake. Sure enough, Lux Æterna is structured around moments of feminine vulnerability: in the film’s opening sequence, Béatrice and Charlotte sit illuminated by a hearth discussing their respective sexual humiliations on the job; an extra (Abbey Lee) discovers that her shirt is see-through and, forced to wear it on camera, she threatens the costume team with legal action; a crew member walks in on Charlotte as she learns a piece of truly horrific news about her daughter. In its presentation of camera as voyeur getting off on the suffering of Béatrice and her actresses, Lux Æterna associates the cinematic regard with the spectacle of a witch burning, gobbling up misogynistic entertainment at the expense of another’s pain.
And yet against all odds, the crew breaks through this madness: Charlotte and the extras mount the stage and stand ready to be burned. In the film’s—and perhaps the entire festival’s—most paralyzing sequence, the set’s lighting elements go haywire, subjecting the cast and crew to an intolerable multicolored flicker. In the reverie of emotional agitation and visual hypnosis that follows, Charlotte’s true terror is eagerly captured by the production’s cinematographer, her cries of fear punctuated by his encouragements to perform fear. The set’s smoke machines and accelerating stroboscopic barrage taking the place of the purifying flame, the reels continue to turn on Charlotte’s anguish. “You’re burning!” the DP cries; on a symbolic level, he’s right. For what Lux Æterna most succeeds in is its capacity for a truly ecstatic horror, its violent hypnagogia taking the place of the spiritual assumption of death, a moment far too holy for anyone but its sufferer to stop the cameras from capturing. “Bonfires,” Béatrice says to Charlotte at the beginning of the film, “are so sexy.” Not in any erotic sense, but in a way at once much more sacred and much more base: in the burning of the witch, after all, exists both the revelatory last gasp and the charred corpse on the pyre.
Dir: Gaspar Noé
Prod: Gary Farkas, Lucile Hadžihalilović, Anthony Vaccarello
Cast: Béatrice Dalle, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Abbey Lee
Release Date: 18th May, 2019 (France)
Images courtesy of Wild Bunch.