Home Actor Gaspard Noé’s LUX AETERNA: How Not to Make a Movie About Witches

Gaspard Noé’s LUX AETERNA: How Not to Make a Movie About Witches

By Jim Gilles

For the initiated or the bored, there is a new film by Gaspar Noé haunting art house cinemas at the moment including the Los Feliz Theatre in Los Angeles.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in the film, being burnt at the stake as a witch

Gaspar Noé’s 2021 Lux Æterna is a 51-minute-long gimmicky and slick experimental drama which is a kind of mockumentary about witches, chaos on a film set, and sexism in the movie industry. Generally plotless, Lux Æterna is a film about making a film which is basically a commercial for the fashion house of Yves Sant Laurent and shot with split-screen techniques, strobe lights and neon colors like an acid trip. Promoted as “a vibrant essay on respect for beliefs, the actor’s craft, and the art of filmmaking” with much head-scratching, one is left to wonder if there is anything to take away from sitting through this rather pretentious exercise in filmmaking. The title Lux Æterna, which means “eternal light,” is obviously tongue-in-cheek, as the film-within-a-film is about some contemporary witches in fashionable dresses being burnt at the stake.

Split screen with Charlotte Gainsbourg being tied to a stake as a witch & Béatrice Dalle screaming at the film crew

Gaspar Noé’s Lux Æterna may be yet another film about filmmaking spawned by a movie industry that likes to believe that everyone should be excited about making films. Confined to a pressure-cooking 51 minutes, it follows the cursed production of God’s Work, which aspires to outdo Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), a Danish film about burning witches but also a harrowing account of individual helplessness in the face of growing social repression and paranoia during the Nazis. In a prologue featuring a clip from the witch-burning sequence in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, it is explained that the actress was up on the stake for two hours during shooting: “It’s no wonder her face bore a real expression of horror.”

Mica Argañaraz in cloture dress being burnt at the stake as witch in the film-within-a-film

The stars of the film-within-the-film, Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg, engage in a meandering, apparently improvised 10-minute conversation –presented in split screen – about their lives on and off set, before plunging into a distinctly Noé-like chaos that culminates in the shooting of a climactic witch-burning scene. Predictably, it doesn’t go according to plan. The two actresses are seen conversing with each other in split screen, swapping stories of nightmare shoots and sharing their most mortifying experiences of being naked on set.

Assistant Director (Félix Maritaud) who does not honor a co-star’s nudity clause

The pace picks up as soon as they begin working on the movie at hand. Dalle, who is ostensibly directing the project but is at odds with her producer, skulks around the studio trailed by a guy with a camera. Gainsbourg receives upsetting news from home that’s not resolved before it’s time to shoot. She and Abbey Lee, who’s also in the cast of the movie within the movie, are hit up with creepy offers of roles in another project even while they’re struggling to stay focused on the chaos of this one.

Chaos on set with DP and film crew

By the time the two of them and the model Mica Argañaraz are strapped to stakes and ready to burn, the flames are the least of their worries. Noé, switching back and forth from split screen, finds ways to contrast the devastation in the fake movie village with the hectic mundanity of costume changes, finally getting to a point when the film that’s being shot– titled God’s Wrath –seems more frenzied and genuine than the backstage action.

Split screen with Charlotte Gainsbourg being tied to a stake as a witch & Béatrice Dalle screaming at the film crew (1)

Noé foreshadows this climax with an on-screen quote attributed to Dostoevsky, about the apparent ecstasy epileptics experience before a seizure. There are other quotes throughout the film from directors Noé presumes to call simply “Jean-Luc” and “Rainer W.,” among others. The end credits only list first names, too, and feature such nonstandard film crew jobs as “incantation,” “mystification” and “execution.”

Split-screen of Charlotte Gainsbourg as a witch being burnt at the stake & Béatrice Dalle as director despairing over the mess on set

Karl (Karl Glusman) plays a cocky young director who corners Gainsbourg to pitch another project, something 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) steal Dalle’s big set-piece and direct the film himself.

The actors, crew, and paparazzi crowding the set of God’s Work are constantly at each other’s throats. The set itself is a warren of corridors, lit in lurid greens or reds, that lead onto other sets. At one point, Gainsbourg seeks shelter in an empty TV set to take a call from her traumatized daughter and happens across a mutilated torso with only the penis intact. All this artifice suggests a dungeon of postmodern reflexivity from which there’s no exit because the world is nothing but a film studio.

Charlotte Gainsbourg acting as a witch being burnt at the stake

If the film-within-the-film is a vapid fetishization of women’s martyrdom – and suspiciously in keeping with Dalle’s professed fantasies – Lux Æterna is a willful exercise in repulsing its own audience. Noé spares no effort to discombobulate the viewer. Characterization is limited to what we know of the real actors and mutual cruelty. Volleys of abuse, threats, and misogyny from both screens overlap on the soundtrack. The glow of auto-da-fé or apocalypse grows monotonous. In the angry mob gathered to enjoy the spectacle of Gainsbourg’s character’s punishment, the theater audience sees itself reflected. Noé draws an overt parallel between film and the sadistic pleasures of medieval punishment-as-entertainment.

Film crew preparing Mica Argañaraz for witch-burning scene

The strobe‐lighted sequence that caps Lux Æterna guarantees the distress of the viewer. What starts as a lighting malfunction takes on a life of its own as it coincides with a lull on set – and is all the more palpable in contrast to everything that comes before. Lux Æterna is less an art film than a self-serving rant attacking those who sell out their art for commercialism.