Pressed to think of a filmmaker capable of directing a subdued, melancholy study on the harrowing effects of old age, one would be forgiven for not immediately thinking of Gaspar Noé. Noé is, of course, one of the preeminent enfants terribles of the New French Extremity, infamous for such in-your-face shockers as Irreversible and Enter the Void. His last film released stateside, 2019’s Climax, was perhaps a bit more palatable to mainstream audiences (thanks largely to a handful of dazzlingly choreographed dance sequences), but it was still a breathlessly snotty orgy of sex, drugs, and very bad behavior. Love him or hate him, few working directors have as shrewd an eye for feel-bad cinema.
It was with some trepidation, then, that I approached Noé’s latest. A far cry from the sadism and psychopaths of Noé’s previous work, Vortex is instead an intimate character study about an elderly couple on the precipice of mental decline. And while Vortex is, in many ways, as difficult a watch as anything in the director’s oeuvre, it displays a remarkable empathy, and could—perhaps even should—be watched by the whole family.
Vortex sets Noé’s camera in the cramped Paris apartment of an elderly couple (played by Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento—yes, that Dario Argento). She’s a former psychiatrist and he’s an aging author and film critic, but it’s clear that the best days of both are behind them: she’s in the early throes of dementia, and his creative process is scattered across increasingly illegible notes. The “twist,” as it were, is that Noé frames the entire film in split screen, with each half of the couple inhabiting their own box (the two occasionally switch sides as they cross paths). On one side, we see The Father (as he is credited) clacking away at his typewriter and making absent-minded phone calls. On the other, The Mother putters around, performing increasingly inscrutable tasks which are clearly very important in her own mind, if nowhere else. The couple are occasionally visited by their son, Stephane (Alex Lutz), who shows concern for his parents’ wellbeing—although, as we gradually learn, he has plenty of demons of his own without having to contend with his parents’ as well.
In its own way, Vortex is just as much of a horror movie as anything Noé has released (or Argento, for that matter). We see, in excruciating detail, the ravages of old age upon the human brain. Lebrun’s performance in particular is utterly heartbreaking: her face is a cloud, furrowed with concern over her ritualistic busywork, even as it occasionally teeters from the nonsensical into the actively harmful. The Father, meanwhile, is mostly lucid, but his stubbornness and physical frailty makes him a poor caretaker for his enfeebled wife (I was worried going in that Argento’s presence would be a distracting bit of stuntcasting, but he is wholly credible and more than disappears into the role; it’s only in a closing montage of the couple through the years that his status as one of the most iconic horror filmmakers of the twentieth century feels intrusive). It’s clear that no good can come from this couple’s precarious position, but, as is so often the case in real life, it’s difficult to see a way out.
And yet, despite its undeniably upsetting nature, there is a heart to this picture which occasionally verges on sweetness. A title card in the opening credits dedicates the film to “those whose brains decompose before their hearts,” and that certainly applies to these two characters. As unmoored as the Mother is from reality, and as much as she drives her husband crazy, it’s plain that they still love one another dearly. It’s also obvious that Stephane’s concern for his parents is genuine, as is his frustration that he only has so much power to help them. When the three sit down together to talk over their options, it’s the sort of frank, honest discussion that one rarely sees in a movie—and perhaps even more rarely in real life. If Vortex inspires even a handful of viewers to engage in difficult end-of-life conversations with their loved ones, it may prove to be one of the most positive and helpful films of the year.
Of course, this is a Gaspar Noé film, so one should probably think twice before bringing their grandparents to see it– On Golden Pond it ain’t. While Noé clearly has empathy for his characters– perhaps, god forbid, even affection– he shows them no more mercy than any of his other characters. Just about everything bad that could happen to these characters does, and there are times when the film feels like watching an incredibly slow car crash (there was one moment in particular which had the audience at the NYFF press screening gasping in greater horror than anything in Titane; those who have seen the movie will likely know the scene to which I’m referring). It’s difficult to imagine anyone walking into Vortex expecting a happy ending, but it would be nice if Noé gave his characters even a brief respite.
But, of course, they are in a vortex: that of their own vanishing faculties, and of the natural downward spiral of life in general. The decrepitude on display here waits for all of us– and that’s if we’re lucky. Vortex is a rough time at the movies, and I’m not sure when or if I’ll have the urge to give it another go round, but it’s a sober, grounded work from a director not particularly known for those. At the very least, it will inspire you to consider some very real and serious questions– or, at the very least, to call your parents.
dir. Gaspar Noé
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