Movies are wondrous. Magical, moving pieces of art crafted by human hands, designed to explore the very essence of the human condition and, in many cases, instill hope in current and future generations. The same cannot be said of the process of making movies. Legion are the stories of troubled productions, scuttled finances, terrible weather, performers and their bad behavior, exploitative directors and egotistical producers. There are plenty of movies out there about the magic of cinema, but they can’t hold a candle to the endless array of movies about making movies. And some of those are the best around.
The fascination should be self-evident. Can you think of another profession where the chasm between production and product is this disparate? If a baker has a bad day, the bread doesn’t rise. If a basketball player can’t find their shot, they don’t score a lot of points. But even the worst day on a movie set can still produce something majestic. And that seems to be the impetus behind Argentinian filmmaker Gaspar Noé’s Lux Æterna.
Made in 2019 and running a brisk 52 minutes, Lux Æterna is a movie composed of two, sometimes three, shots presented side-by-side like comic book panels. Lux opens with Béatrice Dalle as the movie-within-the-movie’s director on the left and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the movie-within-the-movie’s lead actor on the right. Dalle plays Dalle and Gainsbourg plays Gainsbourg. They talk about making movies, the sexiness of being burned as a witch (for a movie, of course) and how embarrassing it is to shoot a sex scene. Noé punctuates these conversations, as he will the rest of the movie, with quotes from famous filmmakers: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and so on. It’s all very inside baseball and pompous, but so is everything else in Lux. Then Noé’s movie kicks into gear when Dalle and Gainsbourg stop talking about making movies and start making the movie-within-the-movie. Now Noe’s split screens become a cacophony of dialogue—mostly in French—with players coming and going in a flurry of activity. No one seems to know who is who, what they are doing or what’s happening. Everyone is told to comply, and complaints go unresolved. Two actresses (Abbey Lee and Clara Deshayes) have to strip and get into costume in the make-up room because they don’t have trailers. A production assistant kind of holds up a sheet to shield their nudity from the rest of the people in the room. And then the guy making the making-of doc wanders in.
Moments like this feel honest. The rest of the movie feels pretentious. Then an electrical glitch transforms a routine scene of stylized schlock into something beautiful, artistic and, the longer it goes on, hypnotic and terrifying. It’s been over 20 years since Gaspar Noé started ruffling feathers and upsetting the audience with his enfant terrible approach to cinema. Lux Æterna feels a little bit like a thesis wrapped around a confessional.