Gaspar Noé Wants Us to Lose Control


Lux Aeterna shares a number of similarities with Vortex, Gaspar Noé’s other film released in theaters this month. It’s not just that both films use a split-screen gimmick. When I first looked Vortex At last year’s New York Film Festival, I felt the split-screen technique was nothing more than that: a gimmick. There didn’t seem to be any real benefit or functionality to the screen-halving-enhanced movie-watching experience, as we witness an elderly couple (played by giallo director Dario Argento and French actress Françoise Lebrun) slowly waning from their inability to care for each other. Most of the time, dual cameras don’t even depict two separate situations in separate contexts, but the same one from a slightly different angle. And, while aware of Noah’s nihilistic thrust, I was also unimpressed with the film’s approach to portraying old age and death. However, I am fond of experiences of ill-being, and Noé Climax– a real depresser – completely works for me.

Climax is obnoxious and nasty, but the self-inflicted psychedelic torment of self-absorbed youngsters doesn’t disturb me in the way that Vortex defeats his elderly couple against their will. The dancers of Climax don’t ask – in fact, to see them commit drug-induced heinous acts on their own bodies and on the bodies of others is horrific. But, as Noah explained in 2020, their plight is akin to punishment for their various insecurities and fears of letting go. Dancers basically drive themselves to ruin because they cling to corruptible mindsets and Climax, so works like a horror movie where the boogeyman is in his own brain. It’s perverse, but it’s cathartic. And while it’s also kind of a horror movie in its own right, there was something particularly unnecessary and cruel to me about Vortex that I couldn’t really digest.

Although I still don’t particularly care about Vortex (and would never allow myself to go through the excruciating 142 minutes again) I find the movie more interesting now in conversation with Lux Aeterna. Lux Aeterna completes Noah’s split-screen triptych, and is actually his first (the film premiered at Cannes in 2019, but its 2020 US Tribeca premiere was canceled due to COVID). The split screen happened by chance: the production of the film was in the process of undoing Noé, and he decided to start shooting from different angles. When he finally had all the footage finished, instead of cutting from different angles as is usually the case in film editing, he decided to use the side-by-side angles. Noé himself calls the split-screen technique a gimmick. But he took it to heart nonetheless, using it again for a short film promoting Saint Laurent’s 2021 line, then again for Vortexboth shot during the height of the pandemic in 2020. As Noé explains, the split-screen works to portray the very dissimilar lives led by Vortexthe central couple despite being physically together. There is a dissonance between them that occurs entirely in their minds.

Much of Noah’s work is bound together by the theme (and stylistic recreation) of loss of mind or loss of control over one’s body. In Climax, a troupe of dancers unknowingly have their drinks spiked with LSD, and this breach of trust manifests their collective journey as violent instead of profound or idyllic. In Step into the void, a young drug dealer is shot and watches over his own life in an out-of-body purgatory experience. But, perhaps, the culmination (sorry) of this representation of a loss of bodily autonomy is reached with the maddening duology of Vortex and Lux Aeterna: Films centered on two radically different versions of losing your mind, both designed to cause the viewer to lose their minds while watching.

In Lux AeternaBéatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg play the role of shooting a fiction film about witches, on a set where absolutely everything goes wrong (reminiscent of the much less disconcerting film by Tom DiCillo live in oblivion). Between technical production issues, clashes between cast and crew, Dalle becoming increasingly tyrannical, and Karl Glusman vying for a bigger star to take an interest in the movie he’s trying to make, the creeping chaos reaches its climax. Lights go haywire and strobe in kaleidoscopic agony. This happens as Gainsbourg and actors Abbey Lee and Clara 3000 are, in their roles as witches, each tied to a pyre to be burned. On one half of the screen, Gainsbourg continues to squirm on his stake, prevented from descending by the cameraman, while on the other, Dalle is in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Artistic ecstasy blooms from both. The film is like a panic attack personified, and it’s intentionally made to induce unease, discomfort, and even nausea in the audience. Split-screen only exacerbates this.

Like Vortex is objectively Noé’s most sober film, the subdued use of split screen didn’t penetrate me at first. Only after the on-screen maelstrom-enhanced mental maelstrom in Lux Aeterna that I better appreciated what the technique can achieve for a particular visual experience. Lux Aeterna layers its chaos on itself until it reaches a breaking point – both for its characters and for its audience – when Dalle’s depression is paralleled with Gainsbourg’s euphoria. The simultaneous pain and pleasure of liberation. Although much more discreet, Vortex The divided and quiet rowdiness has become equally upsetting, if not overt, as we experience the fractured cohabitation of Argento’s father and Lebrun’s mother.

On the surface, Lux Aeterna and Vortex play like a double feature from hell, but it feels like kismet more than just a pandemic-related coincidence that both Noah movies managed to hit theaters at the same time. Together they create a provocative vision of two sides of the same coin of mortality: a fear of losing control of life (and art) and death. Noah talked about how Vortex was partly inspired by the director’s mother losing her mind towards the end of her life a few years ago, and also by her near-death experience with a cerebral hemorrhage in early 2020. Suddenly, that loss of control is very real for Noah, but he came out different. And yet Lux Aeterna was filmed before Noé’s contact with death, it fits almost perfectly with the film he made when it was released. Losing control of our mind and body is terrifying, but we only punish ourselves in that little window that we are alive by becoming conduits of fear. Yes Climax depicts what happens when we let fear rule our minds, Lux Aeterna and Vortex represent – both on screen and in the craft itself – what happens when we submit to it.

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in the middle of nowhere in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bimonthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitterwhere she enjoys engaging in thought-provoking discussions about films like Movie 43, Clifford and Watchmen.

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