A recent watch of I Stand Alone (1998) had me wondering where my relationship with Gaspar Noe went awry. My first introduction to the then-enfant terrible was in his nausea-inducing Irreversible (2002). A transgressive and shocking feature, with its blunt violence, swirling camera and infamous, discomforting infrasound, the film is designed to revile viewers. Noe seemed glad that audience members couldn’t sit through his film. A badge of honour. I watched Irreversible hungrily twice more after my first viewing. It wasn’t the work of a shock jock. Noe had dark observations on violence and vengeance and his alarming, disarming usage of form said it well.
I Stand Alone is similarly striking. A film which gives viewers a 30-second warning to remove themselves from the film before the unnamed main character descends into a mental breakdown. A degradation bought on by their own self-destructive nature and a dilapidated, desperate landscape of 1980s Paris.
Distinct in their visions, both films imposed their nihilistic tendencies upon a viewer with their use of form. With impressive results. I’ve been told the same of Enter the Void (2009), unfortunately, at the time of writing, my feelings about that film are unknown.
Feelings on Noe’s more recent works have been less appealing. As a filmmaker, Noe has grown in terms of craft. His films certainly look better. Yet an onslaught of indulgence and meandering have rendered recent ventures rather impotent.
Love is littered with unsimulated sex scenes playing out as if the internet doesn’t exist. Noe worsens proceedings with winks to the camera referencing himself in a way that was gladly missing in his earlier works. Meanwhile, in Climax (2018), a dazzling use of dance and long shots soon descends into a rather dull Dante’s Inferno fable. Noe again lets loose his misanthropic tendencies, but without the locational despair of period France as in I Stand Alone, and Climax slowly stumbles into a disinteresting bore. Which in turn had me worryingly nervy for the next Noe I would watch.
All this padding brings us to Lux Æterna. A film with an irregular running time, Lux Æterna originally started out as a short film commission for Yves Saint-Laurent before warping into another creature altogether. Improvised from a 3-line script, Lux Æterna is a blend of metafiction and psychological dream which centres itself around Charlotte Gainsbourg and Beatrice Dalle playing heightened versions of each other. While preparing to shoot a film about witches, technical problems and dramatic outbreaks slowly push the production, and the two women, into mass psychosis.
What starts off as something rather intriguing soon falls into a foggy, uneven hot mess. Interviews about the film have Noe highlight the short production time and improvised nature of the film. Despite Noe using a formidable array of cinematic tricks (split screens, heavy use of strobes, bold colour), Lux Æterna never reaches a groove. Possibly because it never really escapes its fashion company commission trappings.
Noe clearly wishes to express something profound about women in film. Possibly about the #MeToo movement. Watching two iconic actresses of their generation improvising on themes such as sex and difficult moments on set is subtly revealing. The scenes in which two actresses well known for their intense, mentally unstable performances talk about the scummy behaviour of male filmmakers have a boldness about them.
With so many people drawn towards the somewhat gendered hysteria, the two women have displayed in the past, to see them kicking back and performing a fictional dissection of themselves is intriguing. Especially when both feel that despite their treatment, they made great art. The conflict immediately brings up the likes of Sharon Stone, who has measured her complicated feelings about that scene in Basic Instinct (1991) against the film’s actual success. That the film then decides that all the male characters within Lux Æterna begin conspiring against the duo in different ways only bolsters the allure.
But Lux Æterna is only 51 minutes long and all – if any exists – of its intrigue, evaporates quickly. Noe merrily slaps in filmmaking quotes by famous filmmakers throughout the run time, ruminates on the idea that epileptic fits bring folk to ecstasy, and once again brings up atheist rumblings. But nothing has time to stick. The whole thing feels more like an expensive and shallow exercise. The type only a filmmaker with a certain amount of clout can make.
What does hang around however is Noe’s seemingly studious dedication to making people not want to watch his movies. The film’s end is a blistering kaleidoscope of sound and colour, with Noe putting a viewer through their paces with his use of strobes and sound design. The piercing sound and flicking lights may not be suitable for anyone who has epilepsy. It’s doubtful they will reach any sort of nirvana. Those who do not have such a condition may find themselves mesmerised or nauseated in equal measure. If there is one thing to be said, however, the finale is certainly an astounding piece of craft. Yet when all is said and done, it is safe to say that while this writer has struggled with recent Noe works, at least they were completed thoughts.
As usual, Arrow Video is doing the lord’s work in providing extra content for physical media. A worthwhile benefit for completists considering the film itself doesn’t even make the 60-minute mark. The pick of the bunch is Miranda Corcoran’s video essay, ‘Lux in Extremi’, in which the critic views Noe’s film as a metafictional mediation on female-focused torture. Corcoran’s comments on the #MeToo movement as well as a brief yet rich dive into ritualistic torture on-screen is riveting stuff. Far more engaging than the disc’s main feature.
READ MORE: Vampyr (1932) – Blu-ray Review
A notable feature on the disc is The Flicker (1966). An experimental short film by Tony Conrad, it highlights the stroboscopic effects that Noe is greatly influenced by. Much like the end of Lux Æterna it is unwatchable for those with epilepsy. It also might be too avant-garde for a casual filmgoer. Although a film watcher buying a Gasper Noe film is perhaps anything but causal, watching a strobe effect for 29 minutes may only really appeal to a limited few. However, those who view The Flicker may chuckle at how the warning title card before the film is not too dissimilar to Noe’s warning near the climax in I Stand Alone.
Also on the disc, amongst the image galleries and trailers are two separate commentaries. One with Noe and Dalle, while the second featuring Kat Ellinger. The disc extras make Lux Æterna worthwhile to completists of Noe’s oeuvre. However, for myself, I was left to wonder if my sensibilities will ever coincide with Noe’s again. I also realised I really need to purchase The Witchfinder General (1968) on Blu-ray when the chance arises. Go Figure.
Lux Æterna is out on Blu-ray on 30th May from Arrow Video.