At the end of his experimental film Lux Aeterna, writer/director and provocateur Gaspar Noé plasters the line “Thank God I’m an atheist” onto the screen. As an auteur, cinema should be Noé’s chosen deity, although whether he did it dirty or created a worthy offering to that god with his movie is a matter of opinion. Known for his incendiary films that include everything from a horse being butchered (Carne) to psychedelica, voyeurism, and a scene shot to look like it’s from inside a vagina (Enter the Void), to sexual violence and a nine-minute rape scene (Irréversible), Noé looooves to offend. In fact, he has come out and said he wants people to walk out of his movies disgusted. I don’t think there’s much fear of that with Lux Aeterna, although escaping without a migraine is another matter. The warning at the beginning that the movie contains lighting not suitable for epileptics is a vast understatement. It isn’t the flashing lights or bizarre and plotless flow of it that chafes the most though, it is how Lux Aeterna portrays women, though in fairness the men don’t come off smelling like roses either. Still, like a dutiful critic, even as I felt innervated by the shrewish, hysterical characterizations of the lead female characters, I was called to consider them and the film as a whole in a deeper way.
The original idea was born as the fourth incarnation of an international art project called SELF, curated by Saint Laurent’s creative director Anthony Vaccarello. The project is meant to be an artistic commentary on society, while emphasizing individuality and self expression. Lux Aeterna’s 51 minutes open with scenes styled after German Expressionist films, as a documentary about religion and the prosecution of witches, with interspersed text about a filmmaker’s responsibility “to raise film from an industry to an art form”. From there, it cuts to a shadowed cross. Uh oh. Given Noé’s filmography, one gets the sense that he’s about to blaspheme.
We are then introduced to Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg, improvising a version of themselves. They’re on the set of a film that Dalle, an actor, is directing, and the two are waiting, talking about past work and such. Dalle is talking a mile a minute. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard someone speak so rapidly. I speak both French and English and was torn back and forth between the subtitles, (I check to see how closely they translate from French to English and how it might lose meaning or feeling in translation), and listening to Dalle rattle off her thoughts on witches, performance, nakedness, and sex to Charlotte Gainsbourg, who gets a few words in, but only edgewise.
The rest of the film stages a devolution in which Dalle has a breakdown, another actor (Abby Lee, playing a version of herself) freaks out about her costume (or lack thereof), the miffed male DP declares he’s walking off the movie if Dalle isn’t replaced, and every other intrusion you can imagine to keeping a peaceful set. Chaos sets in. The crescendo of the film happens when Lee, Gainsbourg and one other actor are trussed up to their stakes (clearly designed to evoke Jesus and the thieves on Calvary), then without explanation, psychedelic strobes of colored lights start flashing. That goes on for a full and excruciating 10 minutes, in which, among other things, the male DP revels in the beauty it produces in an increasingly panicking Gainsbourg. The last moments show a cross against the flashing lights and the credits run. The last frame says, “Thank God I’m an atheist”.
That brings us back to film as religion. Lux Aeterna is Latin for ‘eternal light’. Are Noé and company suggesting the light of the movie screen, or of a movie projector, is the eternal light? When talking about why he used strobes for an extended period of time, he mentioned that for Dostoyevsky, who had epilepsy, his seizures prompted his most intense moments of rapture, bliss and joy. Noé said perhaps he was trying to elicit epileptic seizures, and therefore, intense moments of joy, from his audience. So is cinema God, or not? Is he, as a filmmaker, attempting to play priest so as to connect his flock with a higher power?
Also, I can’t help but try to interpret the fact that, in this scenario, the female actors and director are driven mad by the strobes, or rather in the name of art, as a statement about the way women are treated, commodified, and objectified in the film industry. Dalle and Gainsbourg are known to be very strong willed and opinionated women, and based on the press conference at Cannes where the film was released, it did seem to be a fairly collaborative project.
Noé has said, “Life can be a game and when you make movies, you want to play with the audience.” It’s clear he and his collaborators are definitely playing with us, and with meaning here. What he seems to be saying by calling himself an atheist at the very last moment is that he doesn’t subscribe to the preciousness of treating film as sacred. Not everything is meant to be a religious experience, and expecting a filmmaker to regularly hand those transcendent moments to us is foolhardy indeed. The problem is, he can’t have it both ways. He has to decide. Do we take him seriously, or, as viewers, assume he’s playing with us?
As Gaspar Noé films go, this is the least objectionable, which honestly wouldn’t take much. The whole thing becomes such a chaotic mess and goes so absurdly over the top, it almost becomes fun. Almost. It’s too bad the only way he felt he might bring joy results in a pounding headache and eyestrain.
2 1/2 out of 5 stars