Like most of Gaspar Noé’s films, Lux Aeterna opens with a disclaimer forewarning those with photosensitive epilepsy against experiencing the film. Strobe effects have long been a key tool of Noé’s aesthetic strategy to easily overwhelm and disorient the viewer. In this instance, in a fashion entirely contiguous with his provocative persona, he follows the disclaimer by quoting from Dostoevsky. The quote implies that the euphoric effects of epilepsy are actually desirable, thereby implying those with epilepsy should be grateful his movies so consistently provide means through which to trigger seizures. This opening also invokes Carl Theodore Dreyer’s assertion of the auteur as heir to a moral duty to elevate cinema beyond its commercial interests, and into an art form, and then recounts anecdotally, one example of many, wherein an actor, a woman, was made to suffer for art by the director, consensually or otherwise.
Noé has long been possessed by an awareness of his notoriety and reputation for making films that challenge both their performers and their audiences. His acknowledgement of it here feels as tongue-in-cheek as it has ever been. He relishes his bad boy, enfant terrible reputation, and plays the part through moments like these, performing a form of satire where it’s never explicitly clear who the joke is on most: himself, his critics, or his audience. With Lux Aeterna, Noé puts this (self-) mythologized role under the microscope somewhat, examining his place in a long genealogy of men who have made supposedly great art out of inflicting suffering on women and filming the results.
Set in more or less real-time, the film follows Beatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Dalle is trying to break into directing her first feature, starring Gainsbourg, apparently a surrealist film climaxing with a modern-day witch-burning. Unfortunately, it’s been a total sh*t show, with everyone backbiting, undermining, and haranguing one another, and the producers are trying to find an excuse to fire her and replace her with the director of photography, an argumentative and sadistic egomaniac (adjectives that could pretty well be applied to almost every character onscreen) who, not coincidentally, bears a more than passing resemblance to Noé himself.
The film obviously acts as a metatextual unpacking of misogyny in the film industry, as Dalle and Gainsbourg try and do their jobs under unbelievable pressure and scrutiny. The production assistant assigned to shadow Dalle for any possible excuse to give her the boot participates in some sequences that distinctly recall slasher movies, with the film’s predominant use of split-screen keeping both him and the rapidly spiraling Dalle in view as he hunts for her. The most anxiety-inducing element arrives at the midpoint though, as Gainsbourg makes a nightmarishly distressing phone call and is left on tenterhooks as she is forced to go back to work, awaiting news of her child’s welfare.
The film exports a lot of the stereotypical misogynistic narratives around women in art, presenting the darkest fears and insecurities that women in the industry might have about how they’re viewed, encircled by men trying to usurp and subjugate them. There’s a lot of truth to what it’s exploring and as always with Noé’s films, an undeniable potency to the means he uses to explore them. Yet, unlike say, The Assistant, his iteration of these fears is so over the top, entering into the realms of explicit abstraction, that it loses the sting of realism. That needn’t be a bad thing, but his exploration of these themes isn’t particularly coherent, revealing or insightful either. Dalle is made out to be a terrible director, constantly berating her crew while doing little else and the situation Gainsbourg confronts is so horrific that it’s impossible to imagine anyone maintaining their composure throughout it. The film’s so hysterical you quickly get numb to its methods and detach from this grotesque horror show.
Moreover, I don’t see what relevancy or power this argument attains through Noé’s perspective on it, which ultimately rather feels like shallow straw-manning. Though willing to throw the sacred cows of cinema’s past like Godard and Dreyer under the bus (and good for him!) his take isn’t smart or comprehensive enough to find a position for himself in it. You have acknowledged certain seminal texts problematic for the way their cast were treated by the director…so what? Are you saying you’re above this kind of behaviour yourself and are condemning it? Or is this a mea culpa moment and a promise to watch yourself in the future? Most likely it’s some mix of both, but it just feels like he’s using Dalle and Gainsbourg as mouthpieces to absolve himself of due diligence to actually examine his role in the industry and the art he creates. He seems to find other people’s criticism of his films risible, so why participate in criticism of others if you’re secure and unapologetic about your own past actions?
Like many a previous Noé film, Lux Aeterna just ends up feeling rather hollow and hypocritical, not managing to say anything particularly new about the misogyny it shoves in the viewer’s face. That wouldn’t be such an issue if it carried itself with the devil-may-care audacity and verve that defines Noé’s better work. There’s no sense of fun or winning personality here, with Gainsbourg victimized and Dalle portrayed as a hostile mess. What moments of shared insight and bonding get presented are so thin and unconvincing that they do nothing to generate any sympathy or affinity for the characters, all of whom are pretty repellent. Misanthropy is hardly an answer to misogyny.
Much of it may feel over-familiar to many, it may even be triggering to some, and I’ve no doubt that there’s a lot of truth to the examples of misogyny it cites, but however creditable the film’s vague intentions may be, the upshot of it all is barely fifty minutes of repetitious scenes of arguing, backstabbing and humiliation that quickly run through everything the film has to say for itself. Its grueling cavalcade contributes nothing to the conversation, and as formally audacious as it might sometimes be, on the off-chance anyone really does care what Gaspar Noé thinks of sexism in the film industry, they’re not likely to leave Lux Aeterna having gleaned many concrete answers.