Gaspar Noé made his name as a filmmaker with assaultive, brutal “cinema of the body,” unflinchingly depicting humans at their worst. Dario Argento is considered a master of horror, primarily in the gruesome Italian giallo style. When the two come together to collaborate, it’s reasonable to assume they’re creating something truly horrific. But while Vortex achieves that effect, it’s not in the way fans of either director would expect.
Noé’s most notorious film, the rape-and-revenge story Irreversible, concludes its backward-running narrative with a statement that “time destroys everything.” In Noé’s hands, “time” is usually assisted by awful human beings, and often drugs, but with Vortex, he seems to have realized that time doesn’t need any help. Left to its own devices, its impact on the body and mind can be more brutal than any crack-smoking rapist or mad butcher. Following in the footsteps of fellow provocateur Michael Haneke and his acclaimed and uncharacteristically conventional Amour, Vortex looks unsparingly at characters at the end of life, and finds their experiences as scary as any traditional horror tale.
As for Argento, he stars in his first—and, he says, only—lead role. Keeping close to home, he plays an aging film critic who’s hard at work on a book about the notion of movies as dreams. Françoise Lebrun (of Jean Eustache’s The Mother And The Whore, a Noé favorite) plays his wife, a psychiatrist whose ability to write her own prescriptions becomes increasingly dangerous when she starts losing her senses. Both are billed in credits, respectively, as The Father and The Mother. Characters in this story may have names, but are credited only by their function. We may be seeing individuals, this labeling suggests, but the overall arc of life and death happens so often that we can assign generic roles to the participants. As Noé’s official synopsis simply proclaims, in all-caps, “LIFE IS A SHORT PARTY THAT WILL SOON BE FORGOTTEN.” He’s as grandiose as ever, which is to be expected from a person who makes the kinds of films he does.
It’s no insult to Noé to point out that he’s fond of technical gimmicks. From the non-stop inner monologue of I Stand Alone to Enter The Void’s subjective dead-man POV, he likes to remind audiences they are watching a movie, using techniques no other medium allows. In the case of Vortex, as we first see the old couple in slumber, a black line slowly draws itself down the middle of the screen, bisecting our perspective the way Alzheimer’s cuts a sufferer off from everyone around them. From there, the movie mostly remains in split-screen, like Conversations With Other Women; one camera on Mother, the other on Father—except in occasional moments where the camera follows their Son (French comedian Alex Lutz), who goes by the name of Stephane. It allows us to see what either parent is doing apart from one another; then, in scenes when they’re together, creates an imposed barrier between them just as her dementia does.
As in Irreversible, Noé begins the movie with the complete end credits. As in Enter The Void, his camera once again “blinks.” But this time, both choices achieve a different effect. Vortex begins in real time, but the “blinks” serve as jump cuts that feel like memory gaps. Sometimes they just take us a few seconds later; other times, day has become night in an instant.
In Vortex’s portrait of urban France, apartments and corner shops are small and cluttered, becoming claustrophobic mazes to a character losing her bearings. The couple’s apartment is filled floor to ceiling with a lifetime of collected books; every inch of the walls seems plastered in posters, postcards, and old movie fliers. As many times as the cameras walk us through it, it still feels tight and confusing, but it’s home. But when Mother goes out to shops and finds herself in a similar floor-to-ceiling maze of shelves looking for toys, she loses her control of that chaos. The deterioration and disorientation intensifies from there, often marked onscreen by characters angling their arms toward the floor.
One need not be facing end-of-life decisions to make an emotional connection to the material. Anyone who’s ever had a partner with any medical issues whatsoever will recognize the terror in the other’s unresponsiveness and disorientation, or the surprisingly tender moments that temper gruesome situations. Noé’s impulse to show his soft side frequently heralds even more punishment afterward—for the characters, and by extension, the audience. If he shows you the beginning of a stroke, it’s safe to assume he’s never going to cut away, so whether or not you want to, you’ll see that event through to the end—and maybe beyond. Noe based the couple on his parents and grandparents; much like cartoonist Raymond Briggs representing his parents’ deaths in When The Wind Blows and Ethel And Ernest, the result is a loving portrait that’s also so utterly ruthless as to ensure you feel the unsparing pain of his loss.
The veteran Lebrun is, of course, outstanding. As for Argento, if he means what he says, this might be one of the all-time great lead actor one-shots. You forget entirely about Suspiria or The Stendhal Syndrome, and are instead fixated by the puttering, stubborn dreamer he and Noé create. For American audiences without the ear for it, his Italian-accented French will prove no issue or even noticeable, but others more attuned to one or the other may react differently.
If movies are dreams, Vortex suggests, then might life be too. In the end, our lives are all reduced to digestible slideshows or scrapbooks at a funeral. Fragments of memory, preserved in tangible form when our recollections fail. Society recycles spaces and moves on. Noe offers little consolation from this inevitable decline.
Yet it’s there to find, with or without his help. The old couple we watch aren’t especially noteworthy people, even played by screen legends. But even if their lives are in their own way just another of Gaspar Noé’s dreams, the two and a half hours spent with them feels like more than the prelude to a tragedy. It’s a fragment of a life that mattered once, for no greater reason than that people cared while it was in progress, and a reminder of something that existed—even if Noé seems to suggest that it will be inevitably forgotten.