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Cannes 2019: The Lighthouse, Lux Aeterna

"The Lighthouse" is the first movie I've seen at Cannes this year that actually looks like a classic—"looks" in the most literal sense. Not only has the director, Robert Eggers, in his first feature since his 2015 Sundance breakout "The Witch," shot the picture on black-and-white film stock, but he's also opted to revive the old 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio of the early sound era. You may know it from Fox films of the late 1920s ("Sunrise," "Street Angel"), which were made before the dimensions of the image and the optical soundtrack were standardized with Academy ratio (1.37:1) in the early 1930s.

The unusually narrow screen shape lends an appropriately claustrophobic feel to Eggers's tense, often darkly comic two-hander, set entirely on the grounds of a lighthouse somewhere well off the New England mainland in the 1890s. (New England also served as the setting of "The Witch.") There, a crusty old lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe, sporting a roiling Irish accent and a giant beard that makes him look like Emil Jannings) has a new assistant (Robert Pattinson) who is trying his hand at being a "wickie"—slang for the lighthouse-keeping trade.

Before anyone speaks, for a few minutes it appears as if Eggers is emulating the actual Movietone aesthetic—in the early sound era, movies sometimes employed sound effects and a score, but not dialogue. In the opening moments of "The Lighthouse," the movie seems as acutely attuned to the sounds of wind, birds, and waves crashing against the rocks as it is to the clank of dinnerware. (A bit later, it also has the, uh, wit to cut from Dafoe passing gas to the sound of a foghorn.)

Visually, the movie is continually striking. I was reminded of Robert Flaherty's 1934 "Man of Aran," shot off the Irish coast. There is an upward crane shot (or perhaps a series of blended shots) to the top of the lighthouse tower that echoes the stagehands' review of Susan Alexander's opera performance in "Citizen Kane," and there is a clear Kubrick influence as well. The cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke, fully exploits the expressive possibilities of fog and strategically placed lanterns, and sometimes contrasts the silhouettes of the two actors against the bright lighthouse glare.

But just as you're beginning to settle into the movie's visual pleasures, the characters begin to talk, and the gift for period dialogue and antiquated constructions that Eggers brought "The Witch" resurfaces. This is a wonderful movie simply to listen to; Eggers and his brother Max have cited inspiration in Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, and actual lighthouse journals from time. The actors are both superb, and their stylized arguments give Dafoe an excuse to chew on lines like "You make me laugh with your false grum."

Initially, the men's estrangement extends to not even knowing each other's names. (Pattinson reveals his first, and it's a doozy: Ephraim Winslow.) It turns out that Dafoe's character's previous assistant went crazy, babbling about sirens and merfolk. Ephraim begins to have premonitions of that fate himself.

The suspense turns on whether this pair will be able to ride out a long stretch in close quarters without driving each other nuts—and, later, after Ephraim tempts fate, without the delivery of new provisions. (Dafoe alludes to a previous inhabitant of the island—"the rock," they call it—who spent seven months without a visit after storms made launching and docking boats too difficult.) As the booze that Ephraim initially resists begins flowing freely, "The Lighthouse" turns into a potent, hallucinatory cocktail of a movie. Eggers hasn't simply avoided the "sophomore jinx"—he's distilled the strengths of "The Witch" into something even more singular and strange.

"The Lighthouse" screened in the parallel festival Directors' Fortnight, where last year, the perennial Cannes provcateur Gaspar Noé unveiled "Climax." This year, he returned the official with a late addition to the lineup: a mystery midnight movie called "Lux Aeterna" (well, officially "Lux Æterna," or on screen, "LVX ÆTERNA"), about which little was known other than the running time (about 50 minutes) and that the announcement had promised a screening as "hyped as it is mysterious." Who could resist that?

Eggers went from "The Witch" to "The Lighthouse." Noé has made a movie whose title means "eternal light"—and it's about witches. 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."

It's a form of horror that Noé intends to replicate. Cut to present day: Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg, playing themselves, are working on a movie in which women are burned at the stake. Initially, 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.

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 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. 

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.

Noé foreshadows this climax with an on-screen quote attributed to Dostoevsky, about the apparent ecstasy epileptics experience before a seizure. (Epileptics, as usual with Noé, should stay far away from this movie.) 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." In that sense, this larky goof, even now that it's been unveiled and hyped, manages to preserve a bit of mystery.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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