Vortex is, by default, the most emotional Gaspar Noe film. The eternally juvenile director usually only needles his audience for a single emotional response (shock), but his latest is unusually vulnerable & sentimental. It’s still not an easy sit. Euro art cinema veterans Dario Argento & Françoise Lebrun play an aging couple with rapidly declining health, suffering from heart attacks and dementia, respectfully. Alex Lutz plays their frustrated adult son who is helpless to ease their suffering, both because of the inevitability of death and because of the day-to-day complications of his own life as a drug addict and a recently divorced father. It’s a miserable display, but Noe doesn’t dwell on his characters’ pain & suffering the way you might expect him to. There’s a sweetness & warmth to the doomed trio’s unstable life together that you won’t find in previous Noe films. Climax felt like a career-high watermark for what his usual style can achieve, so it’s for the best that he followed it up with something new, something newly subdued.
Of course, Vortex would not be a Gaspar Noe film without a flashy visual device for the director to brandish for his audience’s awe & exhaustion. In this case, he bifurcates the frame into De Palma-style split screens for the entirety of the runtime, isolating the geriatric husband & wife in two separate, cramped 4:3 boxes. Like with all Noe films, you’ll either find the split-screen visuals to be a distracting gimmick or a stunning visual translation of the themes, depending on your generosity towards his intent. There are moments when the choice feels purely arbitrary, like when Argento sits opposite Lebrun at their breakfast table, his arms stretching impossibly long across the screen like Mister Fantastic to comfort her. Often enough, though, it feels like a genuine meditation on the way two people can live entirely separate, lonely lives in a shared space, something many long-term married people can relate to whether or not they’re nearing hospice. Although the split-screen framing provides a rigid structure for the picture from nearly start to end, Noe does keep the moment-to-moment action fresh by having the three main characters swap frames whenever they’re in close proximity. It’s a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure experience where the whims & attentions of the audience dictate the shape of the movie they’re watching. Noe also maintains his deafening sound mixing (this time applied to pedestrian noises like typewriter thuds, coffee percolators, heavy breathing, and urination instead of the usual sex & drugs & rock ‘n’ roll hedonism) and his thoughtful opening credits artwork (this time including contributors’ years of birth along with their names) to make his auteurist throughlines unmistakable even as his themes & subjects soften.
Conceived after he survived a near-fatal brain hemorrhage in 2020, it’s clear Noe’s pondering his own mortality here, along with the universal, devastating inevitability of declining health. Watching an elderly couple strain to prop each other up as their hearts & brains wear out is a vivid enough reflection of that existential crisis, but I got the sense that the failings of the human body is not all that’s bothering Noe. I’m not even sure it was his main concern. He seems to be much more fixated on his characters’ connection to clutter & physical media than their connection to their physical bodies. Argento plays an author & film critic, Lebrun a psychiatrist. Their home is overflowing with books, movies, knickknacks, photographs, and other assorted junk – all evidence of a long life lived. They’re often less concerned with suffering or dying than they are with being separated from their stuff, an anxiety that Noe grapples with sincerely & severely. Even the shops near their apartment—groceries pharmacies, book stores, etc.—are cozy spaces cluttered with long-lingering objects from an old world that will vanish as soon as the people guarding over them expire. Vortex is light on dialogue but never feels quiet, as the spaces it weaves through are impossibly noisy in their collections of cherished, worthless objects.
If you want an excruciating nightmare about the practical, gradual ravages of dementia, Haneke has you covered in Amour. If you want a heartfelt sensory immersion in the daily experience of the affliction, you already have The Father. Vortex rests somewhere between those two distinctions, both brutally frank about the ugliness of a failing body and warmly sentimental about the loneliness & confusion of old age. This might be a for-fans-only proposition as a result, as it’s more interesting as an evolution in Noe’s career (and the career of fellow director Dario Argento, who has never acted in a leading role before) than it is a contribution to the dementia drama as a genre. It worked remarkably well for me in that context, even as someone who despised both Amour and most of Noe’s early provocations. It also reminded me to clear the clutter in my home every few years going forward, so no one will have to deal with my dusty comic books & thrift store DVDs after I die.