Gaspar Noé exploded on to the cinematic landscape in the late 1990s with a series of confrontational, maximalist films. The most terrible of the enfants terribles behind the New French Extremity – the banner that ushered in such shockers as Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-moi and Christophe Honoré’s Ma Mère – Noé has consistently provoked audiences with such indelible scenes as the 10-minute rape sequence in Irréversible, the 3D ejaculation and unsimulated sex of 2015’s Love, and the queasy incest of Enter the Void.
Vortex is the auteur’s most impactful film to date, even if it depicts nothing as disquieting as a face being smashed in with a fire extinguisher (Irréversible again). It is, rather, a meaningful engagement with elder care, dementia and mortality, born of the director’s own experiences with his mother and his near-fatal brain haemorrhage in early 2020.
Using split screen, Vortex establishes the isolated rhythms of an elderly couple, achieving startlingly new results with old tricks. Benoît Debie’s cinematography, additionally, boxes its characters as a coffin might.
We never learn their names. He (Argento) is an intellectual and critic writing a book about dreams and cinema, and suffering from an unspecified heart condition, which he chooses to ignore. His wife (Lebrun) is a former psychiatrist, who, in the fog of Alzheimer’s, continues to write dangerously potent prescriptions for herself and her husband. His mind, as his detailed phone conversations indicate, is all-encompassing, while she is losing all her mental faculties. Their only son, Stéphane (Alex Lutz), tries to help, but he’s a recovering addict with a young son of his own, and his parents are unwilling to leave their apartment for assisted living elsewhere. Their discussions on better living arrangements go nowhere.
With no gore or fluids, Noé mines the horror of bodily decrepitude and forgetfulness. A visit to a nearby shop is a terrifying ordeal. “I’m sorry,” she tells her husband repeatedly, as if she no longer understands the meaning of those words or what she’s apologising for. There are thematic similarities with Michael Haneke’s Amour, in which Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play an infirm couple, but Vortex is quite unlike anything we’ve seen – or felt – before.
In the 1990 novel Vineland, Thomas Pynchon referenced how murder shows and throwaway entertainments work to trivialise death, “the Big D”, as the author had it. Noé reconnects with mortality using a haunting visual device. Unnervingly naturalistic performances from two cinematic legends – the great Italian giallo master Dario Argento, the great Italian giallo master and the star of La Maman et La Putain – add to the sense of loss.