Gaspar Noe likes to introduce his films with a profound quote that lays out the often bleak journey to follow. With Vortex, Noe’s tender but devastating portrayal of aging, mental illness and death, he begins “For all those whose brains decayed before their hearts”. Many times during the film, though, you may recall the quote employed at the start of his 2001 film Irreversible “Time Destroys All Things.”
Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun play Lui and Elle an octogenarian couple living alone together with rare visits from their son (Alex Lutz). Elle starts to experience dementia shortly after Lui suffered a terrible stroke. With their health failing and their routine lives disrupted, they reflect upon the lives they’ve lived and try to plan for the future they have left.
Noe is deservedly known as a provocateur. Having come up during the New French Extremity; his films have always contained extreme elements from brutal violence to unsimulated sex. Even the marketing for his 2018 film Climax invited the audience to hate another of his films. But Vortex finds Noe at his most contemplative. He recently survived a brain haemorrhage and lost his mother to dementia. The film has grown from a troubling instinct the death-fearing director experienced whilst under heavy morphine: the desire to simply not wake up. This film, then, is about the troubling thoughts that occupy the mind once life starts to fade.
Noe has a tremendous capacity for humanity and warmth that shines through so many of his darker films, making them all the darker. The horrible things are always happening to believable characters. Vortex features none of the usual blood and guts but is nevertheless one of his most disturbing. It’s a believable portrait of a couple falling apart, with long sequences of confusion, fear and frustration. Noe’s perspective is unromantic and he has no interest in diminishing the impact of death and illness.
Previous films tackling the subject of dementia typically take a side. Michel Haneke’s Amour focussed on the experience of the surviving relative, the actual experience of dementia manifesting as the impact of behaviours of the suffering wife. Florian Zeller’s film The Father broke new ground by remaining solidly in the experience of the person suffering the condition. Noe’s film is presented as a split screen which divides the experiences of the two. On one side of the screen we see Ellie frightened and desperate, trying to hold on to her life and her senses, and on the other we see Lui trying to continue on with life and becoming ever more frantic as his ability to handle the situation slips away. Even when the two share a scene, they’re rarely in the same frame. The technique is used ingeniously to explore both sides of the disease, with some very creative flourishes that hammer home the impact.
Another curious element of the film is the presence of cinema. Lui is a cineaste who has written books about film, and is passionate about their potential as shared dreaming. Throughout the film, other films can be seen as posters on their walls and on their television screens, unblemished by the time that has passed since they were new. As Lui and Ellie’s lives begin to crumble, the shine of the celluloid is a cruel reminder of the time passed, but also a beautiful memento to the only true immortality. Noe’s film is a beautiful and frightening testament to the robust inner lives that eventually slip away from us all.