Gaspar Noé’s ‘Vortex’ Tackles the Quiet Horror of Dementia

Gaspar Noé, the Argentinian-born French filmmaker, doesn’t know when to quit, and that’s his calling card. Love him, hate him, or love-hate him, the only way to approach his films is to accept that he’s out to push buttons you’d probably rather not have pushed. Whether he’s inviting us to a dance party turned semi-comic horror show (Climax),A hallucinatory, out-of body experience (Enter Void).Or, an odyssey in sexual violence (Irreversible), he’s rated E for Extreme. He’ll try anything once, which, aside from his visual inventiveness, is what keeps you coming back; repeating himself is the worst thing he could do, given how many people seem to exit his films vowing, “Never again!” only to come crawling back for the next one. Noé is a tough habit to kick.

In this vein Vortex is unlike anything he has ever done, even if in some ways it’s like All he’s ever done. This seemingly gentle story—that of an elderly couple reaching the end of their days—is marbled through with veins of emotional violence, like a cut of meat threaded with fat. Near the beginning, it comes off as a work of genius; by the end, it’s more an exercise in extended tedium. There is something in the middle that’s intimate but also deeply moving, and it needs to be shared. But always, no matter what, there are actors to watch, specifically Noé’s stars, Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun, playing characters whose names are barely mentioned, though their faces might come to feel nearly as familiar as those of our own loved ones.

These two have been together for a long time, as we sense in an early sequence, which is rendered—as is the whole movie—in split screen. One of the couples is asleep while the other has just woken up. On the right is the woman, played by Lebrun (most famous, perhaps, for her role in Jean Eustache’s 1973 The Mother and the Woman, though her resumé is much longer than that); her eyes shift and flicker anxiously, as if in response to the demands of some unbidden, invisible spirit. To her left, her husband sleeps unassisted. He’s played, in a rare acting role, by Argento, the director of Italian horror classics like SuspiriaAnd Grey Velvet: Four Flies.

After a time—a long chunk of real time—the woman rises from bed and treks through the couple’s cluttered, book-crammed apartment. After peeing, she moves to the kitchen where she makes her coffee. She pulls a paisley dress over her head and surveys a small rack of necklaces near her closet, but in the end can’t decide which one she wants. Soon after she finishes, her husband gets up. We can also hear him peeing, but it is a slow steady trickle. After he has finished his coffee, he goes into the kitchen to make a new cup. He then walks to his desk, grabs his pen and begins to hunt for his butterfly thoughts. While his wife attempts to clean up some papers, he wave her off. Then she leaves the apartment, seemingly with purpose, but it’s not long until we realize that her confusion is persistent and debilitating, and it terrifies her. The husband follows her around the neighbourhood, following her like a grumby detective.

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

This sequence is technically extraordinary, and emotionally potent: the two characters drift along in their split screens, sometimes overlapping slightly, or we’ll be shown the same scene from two points of view. Sometimes the shutter will close completely and the flash of dark is almost like a flash of memory. Noé captures the isolation of even longtime togetherness. This couple has lived under one roof for seemingly all their lives. But, eventually each person will have to follow their own paths to the grave. There’s no other way.

We learn more about this couple: he’s writing a book about dreams and cinema, and he gabbles about it endlessly to anyone who will listen, or won’t. His heart issues are something he is unwilling to deal with. She’s a psychiatrist—or she Use to be a psychiatrist—and now, in her encroaching fogginess, she’s writing dangerously potent prescriptions for herself and her husband. He’s lost in a life of the mind, while she’s losing hers entirely. As these two grow weaker and less capable of taking care of themselves, their only child, Stéphane (Alex Lutz), steps in to help, but it turns out he’s as lost as they are, trying to kick a drug habit and caring for his young son.

The problems, and the crises, mount, because that’s the Noé way: a film that opens as a jagged symphony of tragic beauty turns into a repetitive dirge. Noé wants us to know how bad things can get, and then keeps turning the screws until his exaggerations become a cruel joke. Soon, what seemed like an amazing feat of art at first becomes a joke.

The reality of aging, ailing parents is something most of us don’t think about until we have to, and who can blame us? It’s almost too sad to face. Vortex bears some resemblance to Michael Haneke’s Amour, in which a similarly aged couple (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) face the end of life, and though it’s not quite as tastefully airless as that film, it feels similarly punishing.

It is true that not everyone needs to be able to see the whole picture. Be happyA film about the effects of dementia on elderly people. However, Vortex, the law of diminishing returns eventually kicks in—there’s a point at which an audience is likely to shut down rather than remain porous. Noé’s actors are wonderful—somehow they keep the whole thing going. This is Argento’s first leading role (he also says it will be his last, a one-off), but he gives us a potent sense of his character’s selfishness as well as his latent tenderness. And Lebrun is quietly marvelous, playing an intelligent, accomplished woman who’s suddenly as unsure of life as a child. Both her fragility and her stubbornness are believable and moving, though in the end, both of these actors become pawns in Noé’s excessively clever game. This is what I love. VortexIt is compelling, stirring and upsetting. However, a larger part is simply numbing in their depressive showiness. Noé, the eternal provocateur, is the leopard who can’t or won’t change his spots. This will not happen again. Until next time.

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