Dir: Gaspar Noé. Starring: Dario Argento, Françoise Lebrun, Alex Lutz. 15, 142 minutes.
I’ve repeatedly seen Vortex described as Gaspar Noé’s most compassionate film. Yet keep in mind that the filmmaker’s softest edge will still be as craggy as a rusty saw. Noé’s work plays exclusively in the key of chaos, violence, and despair, whether it be the still fervently debated sexual violence of Irréversible (2002), or the dance apocalypse contained inside of Climax (2018). In his debut, the psychological drama I Stand Alone (1998), he pauses the film to warn viewers, with a flashing title card, that they have 30 seconds to leave the cinema before he unleashes its full brutality.
Vortex is a film that, at first glance, feels largely mundane – about a married, elderly couple, where the husband (director Dario Argento, of Suspiria fame), a film critic, is taking medication for his heart condition, while the wife (Françoise Lebrun), a retired psychiatrist, is in the advanced stages of dementia. Is Noé suddenly feeling self-reflective? Not to be contrarian for the sake of it, but I struggle to find anything gentle or humanistic in Vortex. That’s what’s so mesmerising about it. It is the ringing of the death knell, a memento mori in action, and an alienating if ultimately deeply humbling experience for its audience.
The film opens with the husband and wife – all characters remain unnamed – sitting on the patio of their Paris home, as the husband recites that old gem of Edgar Allan Poe’s: “Is all that we see or seem/but a dream within a dream?” He’s writing a book about cinema and dreams, poetically trying to tether the two as intimate, individualised experiences.
But, leaving Vortex, I’m inclined to believe that Noé was thinking of the more quotidian view of dreams – as spaces where, each night, we wander aimlessly and senselessly until we’re violently ripped away. The film plays out entirely in split-screen (an approach Noé also took in 2019’s Lux Æterna, his 52-minute dissertation on filmmaking), and is shot by his regular cinematographer Benoît Debie. This couple, from the vast amount of books and bric-a-brac busying their apartment, have clearly known and loved each other for a very long time. So there’s something pointedly, knowingly cruel about how they’ve been banished to separate sides of the screen. They might as well be in entirely different realms. Even when they cross paths or touch each other, Noé shoots each side from a slightly different angle so that they never form a whole picture. All you get are phantom limbs and features jutting in from the sides. It’s devastating to watch.
So is Lebrun’s performance, which has been scaled back to quiet whispers, folded arms, and a shivering mouth. What she captures, above all, is the baseline terror of living with dementia, which leaves her desperately begging her son (Alex Lutz) not to leave, because his is the only face in which she can find some crumb of familiarity. After a difficult conversation about her future, all she can muster are the words: “Let’s pretend it’s normal.”
Argento, of course, isn’t an actor first – but he’s remarkable here, too, particularly when it comes to the messy feeling of anger without a target. There are things the woman he loves does that are destructive, even dangerous. But she has no way to know that. It’s another pain added to all the other existing pains. The credits of Vortex come, like Irréversible, at the very beginning of the film, not the end. It means that there’s no respite after the final scene, no moment of reflection before you’re sent shuddering back into your own body and your own life. Vortex really is the same old Noé. He shows no mercies.