Cinema is such a costly medium that directors have little chance to experiment between features. It’s not like music or painting — relatively low-cost art forms whose practitioners can try new techniques in the secret obscurity of their studios until their bold ideas are ready to be shared. Making movies takes a crew, and equipment, and actors; all of that takes money, which in turn obliges directors to do their R&D in public, on projects that critics can and do hold up to unfair scrutiny.
A few workarounds exist, including commercials and music videos, through which such film artists as David Lynch, Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson have refined their craft, but if they’re not careful, taking such gigs can look like selling out. This brings us to Gaspar Noé’s 2019 oddity “Lux Æterna,” which is not a film in the conventional sense but a work-for-hire gone awry — although in Noé’s case, “awry” is the best (and likely only) way for things to go, living up to the kind of creative chaos fans have come to expect from the “Irreversible” auteur.
What should have been a two- or three-minute branded-content commission for Saint Laurent spiraled into a nearly hourlong mid-length feature — a trippy glimpse behind the scenes of a deranged film shoot. It stars fearless French style icons Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Dalle plays an unhinged film director preparing to burn her leading lady at the stake, whereupon the on-set lighting kit goes into stroboscopic meltdown — red-blue-green in quick succession, so fast as to trigger epileptic fits, yet still radical enough in its quasi-satanic acid-disco vibe to warrant the three-years-belated theatrical release Yellow Veil Pictures is giving it (piggybacking on Noé’s uncommonly restrained “Vortex”).
An homage-indictment to the power of cinema — and the gender-biased power games behind it — “Lux Æterna” was made possible by Saint Laurent’s newish creative director Anthony Vaccarello, who showed up with the proverbial blank check and an invitation to participate in the “Self” campaign: a series of collaborations with individualist artists who were invited to use the clothes and celebrity faces however they pleased as a creative way for YSL to penetrate rarefied spaces. Daido Moriyama’s entry debuted at Paris Photo (the world’s leading photography expo) in 2018, while Noé’s launched at Cannes 2019 in a coveted midnight slot.
One could argue that it was another case of a male director gaining all-too-easy access to a festival whose organizers hypocritically insist that women aren’t doing strong enough work to be selected, although that would be to deny Dalle and Gainsbourg’s contributions to a largely improvised project. Granted, Noé’s signature is there on every frame, but the tone reflects these two performers just as strongly. Cackling like a pair of modern-day witches, they spend a dozen or so minutes slouched in chairs talking shop — the humiliations of dealing with men, mostly — and making themselves comfortable for what’s to come. “Have you been burned at the stake?” Dalle asks. “It’s so chic!”
Noé frames the conversation with simultaneous views of two different angles presented side by side, trying out a format that would prove so integral to his next feature, dementia drama “Vortex” (in which an elderly couple share the same apartment but exist in two very different states of mind). The device doesn’t quite make sense here but affords some novel gimmicks all the same, as in the scene where an increasingly flustered Dalle wrenches the camera away from an intrusive videographer: The left side observes her confiscating the very device that’s capturing the right-side POV.
At times, “Lux Æterna” seems like one big joke — a satirical riff on the disorder one finds on an unprofessionally hectic film set. But all of this could also be read as a commentary on how women are mistreated in the industry, as Dalle and Gainsbourg are constantly being distracted and disrespected by inappropriate dudes. There’s Karl (Karl Glusman), the cocky young director we met in “Love,” who corners Gainsbourg to pitch another project, babbling about “the recognition I deserve.” There’s the assistant director (Félix Maritaud) who fails to honor a co-star’s nudity clause. There’s the producer (Yannick Bono) who conspires to let the veteran male DP (Maxime Ruiz) hijack Dalle’s big set-piece and direct the film himself.
In Noé’s previous feature, “Climax,” the director lined the screen with stacks of VHS tapes featuring some of his most out-there cinematic inspirations: Fassbinder, Buñuel, Pasolini, Argento. Here, he incorporates their words/work directly into the film, opening with clips from silent classics “Häxan” (Christensen, 1922) and “Day of Wrath” (Dreyer, 1943), then breaking up the rest with quotations from his idols, identified by their first names: Jean-Luc, Rainer W., Carl Th. “We filmmakers have a great responsibility. It is up to us to raise the film from an industry to an art,” he cites Dreyer as saying. But the all-around arbitrariness of most of Noé’s decisions here hardly qualify as art.
Let’s be clear: “Lux Æterna” is a glorified Saint Laurent commercial. That’s the tweet-length analysis. But there’s more to it than that.
After inflicting 40 minutes of stressful backstage drama on audiences, Noé lets the whole film-within-a-film go berserk. Something snaps, the sound system emits a painful squeal and the rear-projection screen flashes like crazy, while Gainsbourg writhes on cue in her designer shades and daring red mini dress. Edged out of her own project, Dalle starts to lose it — so over-the-top, she seems to be trying to out-suffer Renée Jeanne Falconetti, star of Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc”: She claws her face and tears her hair in frustration, while the screen splits into three separate panels.
For those parsing the film for inside jokes, the assaultive climax plays like Pasolini’s “Saló,” as imagined by Abel Gance — just as a near-subliminal sampling of “Le Carnaval des Animaux: Aquarium” (official theme of the Cannes Film Festival) is a knowing wink to the platform where this experiment ultimately made its world premiere (a personal favor from Noé’s pal Thierry Frémaux, who could claim a couple more major French film stars to walk his red carpet that year).
Like the rest of Noé’s work, “Lux Æterna” has a pacing problem. There’s no reason for it to be as long as it is: Moviegoers not yet weaned from narrative are likely to spend the first 15 minutes either bored or intrigued, the next 25 disoriented and annoyed, and the final stretch squinting their eyes in the futile hope that there’s a worthy payoff awaiting at the end. (Spoiler alert: There isn’t.) The project can be exasperating, to be sure, but it’s a perfect opportunity for him to test-drive a few new tricks while Saint Laurent foots the bill. To put this demented doodle in context: In medieval times, the greatest art was commissioned by the Catholic Church, and the subjects were suitably devout. Today, the money flows from corporate pockets, and a psychotronic fashion show is just what the client ordered, audiences be damned.