Cannes 2019: Lux Æterna Review

The midnight screening for Lux Æterna, Gaspar Noe’s 50-minute quasi-advert for Yves Saint Laurent (yes, really), has undoubtedly been the highlight of Cannes (no, seriously, really). Beginning around an hour late with raucous applause, copious booing, and a chain-smoking cast who appeared drugged out of their minds; and ending with a standing ovation, tears, and paramedics, Noe’s essay-cum-mockumentary-cum-trip-cum-religious-experience is a wild, ecstatic piece of work that defies explanation and categorisation.

The film opens with a provocative, mysterious quote from Dostoyevsky – “You all, healthy people, can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit… I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, I would not exchange it for all the joys that life may bring.” – before segueing straight to a film set. This is where we meet Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg (starring as themselves).

We figure out that Dalle has transitioned from acting to a directing role and has cast Gainsbourg in her latest movie – something that involves a climactic stake-burning scene. In delicious, delirious split-screen, the two actors quip and chat hilariously about the sexuality and agony of witch burning. In the press conference for the film, Noe revealed that this remarkable, entertaining opening scene was spontaneously shot in one take some period after the rest of the film was made, making it even more impressive. The scene doubles up as an acknowledgement of the tyranny of the auteur.

But, shortly after this, and bookended by a series of quotes about the hardships of filmmaking from Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Rainer Fassbender, and Carl Theodor Dreyer amongst others, we find out that the production of Dalle’s film is not to be so smooth after all. Conflicts, egos, and disasters both preventable and not threaten to annihilate the project altogether.  

As Benoit Debie’s signature camera spectacularly weaves and soars through the artificial wooden confines of the low-lit neon set, chaos is rife. A producer is trying to get Dalle fired, and to have another director step in; an over-excited young filmmaker is repeatedly harassing Gainsbourg about his new film; none of the film’s young stars (including a brilliant and self-parodic Abbey Lee) seem to be able to play ball. Gainsbourg gets a frantic, mysterious and ambiguous call from home that suggests her young daughter has been sexually mutilated. Her intense distress filters both into her irritability and traumatised performance. At times, Noe chucks in more split-screen, with bilingual dialogue spoken in both frames at once such that it’s practically impossible to work out what the hell is going on. The disorienting effect is intentional and completely overwhelming.

At times, this vicious mockumentary style can be endearing, and at others hilarious, but it can also be stressful and pulse-pounding. The message is clear: making films is fucking hard, and movies come gushing from rivers of back-stabbed blood and salty tears. To produce art is to suffer.

As Von Trier would undoubtedly agree, too, witchcraft is the ultimate expression of misogyny, and linking witch trials to the suffering of Actress Charlotte Gainsbourg – which is metaphorically and literally visualised as burning at the stake – is a clear comment about the role of women in the history of cinema. Great, transcendent works of art are made off the back of female suffering – whether in front of the camera or in the plot. In other words, that roaring river of blood and tears is mainly feminine.

This is, until it becomes Noe’s in the last 20 minutes, undoubtedly Béatrice Dalle’s film. She drives this wild, hilarious, horrifying, deliriously entertaining stake straight into the heart of the filmmaking process; delivering a wild, uncontrolled, organic descent into overwhelming chaos and paranoia. Gainsbourg is literally and metaphorically torched by the toxic disarray, leaving only the most exquisite ash in her wake.

But then, in the midst of this shouty, cacophonous degeneracy, something starts happening. The LCD wall displaying flames behind the stakes begins to strobe uncontrollably. At first, the cast and crew try to stop it, but they quickly become captured and transfixed by the light, which swiftly becomes the main protagonist for one of the all-time great trip sequences in cinema.

Like those magic eye pictures from the 80’s, Noe’s double and triple-screen images begin to coalesce and blend under the assault of colour into three-dimensional, illusory and undefinable spectres that writhe and dance in the dead-space between the naked eye and the screen. Humanoid, paranormal shapes form and scatter shimmering round the confines of the theatre as the human soul is abstracted from the body under the glaring beam of the projector into iridescent, phosphorescent plankton.

In the muffled sensory deprivation of the cinema, the only stable reference-point is the screen, so when Noe begins to expand and contract his aspect ratio, continuously duplicating, then halving, then tripling his images, all sense of time and space begins to warp and evaporate. Sitting there in the Lumiere, I began to feel as if falling through some strange, psychedelic void untethered from reality.

The strobing continues and continues, drawing the audience closer and closer into the shape-shifting screen as barely existing stroboscopic shapes and illusions emerge from the subconscious fog. Vision begins to fade away at the edges as consciousness – or at least some form of consciousness – slips away from under the viewer’s feet. It is your choice whether to accept the invitation, or to resist. By accepting, you agree to free-fall through this technicolour chasm of light and sound and colour, where this profound feeling of hope, and possibility, and love suddenly rushes through the body as if feeling the first tingling pangs of an acid trip. Which way is up?

Something magical, undefinable and mysterious appears – the spectre of Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’ in its purest form. Thisis Cinema – quadruple, nay, quintuple fucking distilled to navy strength then downed straight from the bottle towards delirious intoxication. Pitching forward into subconscious space until the almost deistic face of film (call it God if you like) looms forward from the primordial ooze and looks you straight in the eye for a moment that simultaneously feels like an eternity. The spirit of creation staring back at creator, created and receiver alike – the force that drives human progress separated from its fruits in a move that feels as elementally terrifying and beautiful as the splitting of the atom.

“Thank God I’m an atheist” reads the title card that snaps the audience out of the trance – and, more than just an amusing wordplay, the line makes perfect lucid and revelatory sense. Some leapt to their feet with roaring applause, others seemed too stunned to move, others looked on in disbelief and bewilderment, and others still had already left.

I’m not sure if I’ve explained Lux Æterna well – I’m not sure if it’s even possible to explain – but this is a film which successfully conjures a quasi-religious experience of transcendence that left me wide-eyed and gaping for the next hour. Filmmaking is alchemy: out of such disparity and conflict comes something with a mythical, magnetic force. It is creation – God-like – from nothing. Film is not the sum of its parts, for its parts do not add up – but some primal energy soaring electric through the darkness. That night, its euphoric lightning struck the Theatre Lumiere with such force that the building threatened to spontaneously combust.

A line in the still-stroboscopic credits reminds us that, yes, this thing was made for Yves Saint Laurent.


James is a postgraduate law student at LSE, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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