Love him or hate him — and you likely feel one of those extremes — Gaspar Noé’s ability to manipulate his audience is difficult to deny. Whether you’ve sat through the literal-seizure-inducing flashes of Enter the Void or the nauseating sounds of Irréversible in awe or disgust, his talent for making people feel something (often with physical symptoms) is impressive. While most of his films have left me thinking he only sees humans as objects to be toyed with, Vortex is his first work with a sense of humanity and something almost approaching … empathy. Noé still uses the cinematic tricks up his sleeve, but this time, he’s going deeper and seems less intent on simply screwing with the viewer.
Which is not to say Noé can’t still knock the wind out of you. Vortex begins with the dedication, “To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts,” setting the stage for the tragedy we’re about to see. Its first scene seems tantalizingly benign, set — as most of the rest of the film is — in the overstuffed Parisian apartment of an aging couple, film critic “The Father” (director Dario Argento) and former doctor “The Mother” (a heartbreaking Françoise Lebrun). There’s clear affection between the pair, and as they sit down for a lovely apéro of wine and snacks on their balcony, the Mother says, “Life’s a dream, isn’t it?” “A dream within a dream,” agrees her husband.
A nightmare soon descends on the couple. While lying in bed, the dividing line of a split screen seeps down the middle of the frame like a slowly advancing cancer, separating the pair even while they share the same space. The Mother awakens in a state of panic, disorientation etched on Lebrun’s features, and it quickly becomes clear that she has dementia. At points, she fails to recognize her husband and “The Son,” Stéphane (Alex Lutz), with looks of confusion and fear often washing over her face. As she begins to deteriorate further, he refuses to leave their home for a nursing home, though it’s clear he can no longer care for her himself due to his own health issues.
Though Vortex is less tortuous than many of Noé’s films, this is still a tough sit. Its everyday trauma is crushing from its first act through the devastating finale over two hours later. Climax had its disturbing moments (understatement of the year), but there were still some flashes of joy. Even Noé himself, who has seemed to take such pleasure in poking at his viewers in the past, appears to understand the gravity of the onscreen tragedy in this couple’s lives. However, he’s still Noé, and there’s the desire to play with the medium.
While the director’s films often tip into sensory overload, Vortex is surprisingly spare, other than the central visual trick of the split screen. He also employed the technique in Lux Æterna, which was screened at Cannes in 2019 and is finally getting its U.S. theatrical release this year. Long takes that test the endurance of both the cast and the audience dwell equally in the family’s more traumatic moments and the quotidian ones, which echo Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman in the time they devote to everyday tasks. There are lengthy periods without dialogue — the Mother and the Father go about their respective days quietly — and much of what is said was improvised. There’s no score either, with the sounds of Parisian street noise, the clack of the Father’s typewriter, or the couple’s TV providing background “music.” Muted tones appropriately replace the neon palette Noé is generally known for.
Devastation is inherent in the plight of the Mother and the Father, but Vortex isn’t as emotionally wrecking as it should be. Despite the intimate camerawork and documentary feel, there’s still a distance between the audience and these characters that makes this a less affecting experience than either Noé’s previous work or similar films like Michael Haneke’s Amour and Sarah Polley’s Away from Her. Keeping the central couple unnamed adds to the near-universality of the experience, but it also adds a coldness to the proceedings.
Death has been a fixture in previous Noé films, but it has often been intertwined with violence, rather than the simple passage of time. Yet while Vortex’s version of death lacks the brutality of murder, its impact still reverberates on those left behind. In the movie’s early moments, a radio interview with experts on grief can be heard, and the concept takes on dual implications. There is, of course, the grief that comes after a loved one’s death, but dementia prolongs the process, robbing you of valuable time as the aging person loses their memories and can bear little resemblance to the person you knew.
At 58, Noé is by nature no longer the enfant terrible of his — and many of our — youth, intent on provocation at the expense of nearly everything else. Vortex may represent an evolution for the filmmaker or merely Noé briefly experimenting with another approach, but it does represent growth regardless. He still has the ability to surprise, even — and perhaps especially — when he’s making a less shocking film.
“Vortex” is in theaters in New York Friday. It opens in Los Angeles on May 6, with a national rollout to follow.