Lux Æterna shares a number of similarities with Vortex, the other film from Gaspar Noé which hit theaters this month. This is not limited to the fact that both films employ a split-screen gimmick. When I first watched Vortex at last year’s New York Film Festival, I felt that the split-screen technique amounted to little more than just that: A gimmick. There didn’t seem to be any real benefit or feature to the film-watching experience enhanced by halving the screen, as we witness an elderly couple (played by giallo director Dario Argento and French actress Françoise Lebrun) slowly decay from their inability to take care of one another. A lot of the time, the dual cameras are not even depicting two separate situations in separate settings, but the same one from a slightly different angle. And, though aware of Noé’s nihilistic throughline, I was also not impressed with the film’s approach to portraying old age and death. I am, however, fond of a feel-bad experience, and Noé’s Climax—a real downer—works for me completely.
Climax is unpleasant and mean, but the self-inflicted, psychedelic tormenting of self-involved young people doesn’t perturb me the way that Vortex undoes its elderly couple against their will. The dancers of Climax aren’t asking for it—in fact, watching them commit drug-induced, heinous acts upon their own bodies and the bodies of others is horrific. But, as Noé explained back in 2020, their fate is akin to a punishment for their varied insecurities and fears of letting go. The dancers essentially lead themselves to ruin because they hold onto corruptible mindsets and Climax, thus, works as a horror film where the boogeyman is in their own brains. It’s perverted, but it’s cathartic. And while similarly a kind of horror film in its own right, there was something particularly pointless and cruel to me about Vortex that I couldn’t really stomach.
While I still don’t especially care for Vortex (and would never allow myself to sit through all 142 excruciating minutes of it again), I find the film more interesting now in conversation with Lux Æterna. Lux Æterna completes Noé’s split-screen triptych, and is actually his first (the film premiered at Cannes back in 2019, but its 2020 Tribeca premiere in the United States was canceled due to COVID). The split-screen came about by happenstance: The production of the film was undoing Noé, and he decided to start shooting from various angles. When he finally had all the finished footage, instead of cutting to different angles as is typical in film editing, he decided to use the angles side by side. Noé himself refers to the split-screen technique as a gimmick. But he nevertheless became fond of it, using it again for a short film to promote Saint Laurent’s 2021 line, and then again for Vortex, both filmed at the height of the pandemic in 2020. As explained by Noé, the split-screen works to depict the vastly dissimilar lives led by Vortex’s central couple despite them physically being together. There is a dissonance between them happening entirely in their minds.
Much of Noé’s work is linked by the theme (and stylistic recreation) of losing one’s mind, or a loss of control over one’s body. In Climax, a troupe of dancers unknowingly have their drinks spiked with LSD, and that violation of trust manifests their collective trip as violent instead of profound or idyllic. In Enter the Void, a young drug dealer is shot to death and watches his own life in a purgatorial out-of-body experience. But, perhaps, the climax (sorry) of this depiction of a loss of bodily autonomy is reached with the maddening duology of Vortex and Lux Æterna: Films centered on two drastically different versions of losing one’s mind, both crafted in such a way as to make the viewer lose their mind while watching.
In Lux Æterna, Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg play themselves filming a fictional movie about witches, on a set where absolutely everything is going wrong (calling to mind Tom DiCillo’s far less disorienting Living in Oblivion). Between technical production issues, clashes between actors and crewmembers, Dalle becoming increasingly tyrannical and Karl Glusman vying for some bigger star to take interest in the film he’s trying to make, the ramping chaos comes to a head. The lights go haywire and strobe in kaleidoscopic agony. This happens while Gainsbourg and actors Abbey Lee and Clara 3000 are, in their roles as witches, each tied up to a stake to be burned. On one half of the screen, Gainsbourg continues to writhe around on her stake, prevented from coming down by the cameraman, while on the other, Dalle has a full-on mental breakdown. Artistic ecstasy blossoms from both. The film is like an anxiety attack personified, and it is intentionally made to provoke unease, discomfort and even nausea in the audience. The split-screen only exacerbates this.
As Vortex is objectively Noé’s most restrained film, the subdued use of split-screen initially did not penetrate for me. It was only after the mental maelstrom enhanced by the on-screen maelstrom in Lux Æterna that I better appreciated what the technique can achieve for a particular viewing experience. Lux Æterna layers its chaos on top of itself until it reaches a breaking point—both for its characters and for its audience—when Dalle’s breakdown is paralleled alongside Gainsbourg’s euphoria. The simultaneous pain and pleasure of release. Though far more muted, Vortex’s quiet divided bedlam became just as mind-breaking, if not overtly, as we live out the fractured co-habitation of Argento’s Father and Lebrun’s Mother.
On the surface, Lux Æterna and Vortex play like a double feature from hell, but it feels like kismet more than sheer pandemic-related coincidence that both of Noé’s films managed to release in theaters at the same time. Together, they create a provocative take on two sides of the same mortality coin: A fear of loss of control in both life (and art) and in death. Noé has spoken about how Vortex was partly inspired by the director’s mother having lost her mind towards the end of her life some years back, and also by his near-death experience with a brain hemorrhage in early 2020. Suddenly, that loss of control became very real for Noé, but he came out of it a different person. And though Lux Æterna was filmed before Noé’s brush with death, it plays almost seamlessly with the film he made when he came out of it. Losing control of our minds and bodies is terrifying, but we only punish ourselves in this small window that we’re alive by becoming conduits for fear. If Climax depicts what happens when we allow fear to dominate our minds, Lux Æterna 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 middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.