By Jim Gilles
Currently screening at the Los Feliz Theatre and several Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles is Gaspar Noé’s Vortex (France, 2021), an extraordinary film about the dire reality of old age, dementia, and death.
This film, suggestively titled Vortex, is a solemn, documentary-like depiction of an elderly couple muddling through the last stretch of their time on earth. We have come to expect depictions of graphic sex, violence or LSD-spiked dance parties from Argentinian-born filmmaker Gaspar Noé who is known as the provocateur of French cinema, in such films as Irreversible (2002), Enter the Void (2009) and Love (2015). Some might be tempted to compare Noé’s Vortex to Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), but truly Noé’s film is more brutally truthful: Death is chaotic, like life itself. This is a movie without the pornographic and psychedelic sheen of Noé’s previous work, but those earlier pictures had a recurring trick: forcing audiences to the edge of nausea by making them stare into a vortex of flickering stroboscopic light. In this movie, death is the vortex: the dark focus, whose gravitational pull gets stronger – and harder to avoid thinking about – with every passing year.
Shot in split-screen for nearly the entire duration of the film, Vortex also has a rigorous formalist verve despite being otherwise very naturalistic in its approach to the quotidian details of life and death. This film features a rare acting turn from Italian giallo maestro Dario Argento, who shares the screen here with French acting royalty Françoise Lebrun (from Jean Eustache’s 1973 masterpiece The Mother and the Whore). Vortex opens with a telling dedication: “To all those whose brain will decompose before their hearts,” which is a reference to Lebrun’s unnamed character, a former psychiatrist who suffers from Alzheimer’s. She has occasional moments of lucidity but increasingly she doesn’t recognize even those closest to her. At one point, she asks her adult son Stéphane (French comedian Alex Lutz in a convincing dramatic turn) about the man who is always following her around. That man would be her husband of countless years (Argento, “the father”), a film critic working on a book about dreams and cinema.
The movie opens – ominously – with a video clip of Françoise Hardy performing the 60s chason “Mon Amie la Rose,” about the mortality of flowers Then Argento and Lebrun enjoy a modest meal on their rickety terrace in their Paris apartment: These are Lebrun’s final moments of lucidity. We learn that she suffered a stroke a few years ago and has been descending into dementia since then; recently the rate of decline has accelerated.
Then the film shows both of them in bed in their cluttered Paris apartment. A clock radio goes off and jumps right into the middle of a show about their morning routines. Instead of a widescreen image of the couple in bed, however, we see two boxy images with rounded corners next to each other. The left-hand box shows Argento’s character, who continues to sleep in, while the right-hand one follows Lebrun as she gets up and goes into the kitchen to make coffee.
Noé splits the screen into two, dual stories running concurrently, showing in one half Argento’s character pottering thoughtfully about the flat, in denial about what is happening: reading, snoozing, clattering away at his manual typewriter and also leaving surreptitious phone messages, like a lovelorn teenager, for a woman called Claire with whom he has been miserably in love for decades. Meanwhile, on the left-hand side of the screen, Lebrun’s character, with the impassive, leonine expression of dementia patients, wanders off into the streets without telling her husband, or throws all his notes away, or dangerously leaves the gas on, all in a miserable haze of unknowing.
Their son Stéphane (Alex Lutz) comes around to see them, deeply upset by what is happening, and by his own inability to persuade them to enter a care home; this is a subject complicated by his own history with his psychiatrist mother, stricken by the fact that he and they now live in a world of drugs, legal and illegal. Noé will periodically contrive a camera-cut in either of the frames and resume from another point of view; occasionally the two scenes will overlap creating a Hockney-esque perspective-dissonance. Brutally, the medium is the message. These two people will never again share the same screen.
Argento’s character can’t leave her alone for five minutes to work on his book because she might wander onto the street and forget who she is and where she lives. Noé captures all these things in what feels like real time, with its lulls and empty stretches as well as small crises and increasingly rare moments of joy. This documentary-like approach takes the viewer right into the reality of coming to terms with old age and not being able to live life like you’ve done for decades — but also with the shocking reality of what it means to see the future in front of you shrinking so quickly and confusingly that it feels like you could rear-end death itself at any given moment.
There’s an extraordinary scene in the film’s second half, in which Lebrun has a moment of lucidity and her husband and son talk about how they should organize their small family’s future. It’s heartbreaking to watch all three struggle to face the dire reality that things simply can’t continue like this and that there’s no way they’ll return to how they were before. Argento’s character is stubborn and refuses to leave their apartment, even though an assisted living facility would be better suited to their situation, and Lebrun’s character whispers, without vanity or a hint of self-pity, that maybe it would be easier if she died, or if they got rid of her.
To underline this unusual moment of near-togetherness as a family, the two camera axes are very closely but not quite aligned, with Lebrun at one point leaning backwards into the couch and suddenly appearing with her head in both images like a Janus figure, suggesting the impossible duality of the choice in front of them.
Lebrun is quietly extraordinary in a role that’s stripped bare to its most essential elements, while Argento, too, is affecting, even though it’s not quite credible that his French wouldn’t be a little bit better if he has (supposedly) lived for decades in Paris as a film critic. Since a lot of the dialogue was improvised, there’s a searching quality to his words, however, that really help suggest how lost his own character is, even if he doesn’t have any problems with his memory. Argento is terrifyingly convincing in both his line readings and his physical acting; the role makes demands on his body that he fully meets.
Lebrun is similarly harrowingly convincing as a character coming in and out of a fog of befuddlement, no longer able to connect to any emotion but regret. Stéphane has drug use and mental illness in his past, and an estranged wife and a young son named Kiki. His own struggles add a dimension of suspense and dread to the story. For as much as we know how things are going to turn out for its central couple, Noé’s unflinching story telling keeps us hanging in concern and empathy.