Gaspar Noé is the kind of mad scientist filmmaker whose very name invites expectations of provocative experimentation. “Vortex,” which closes in at 142 minutes and spends almost all of them in split screen, would appear to be consistent with that trend. Yet this quiet, slow-burn look at an elderly couple suffering from dementia and other ailments is a grounded, emotional variation of “Amour,” as well as the the most sensitive and accessible work from a filmmaker for whom those descriptors rarely apply.
A world apart from the dazzling psychedelic rides of “Climax” and “Enter the Void,” Noé’s latest doesn’t always justify the formalist gimmicky at its center, but it doesn’t overplay the gimmick, either. A world apart from Mike Figgis’ “Timecode” or anything in Brian De Palma’s oeuvre, “Vortex” introduces its split screen within the opening minutes and simply lets it sit there as a statement on the dueling life stories at its center.
These belong to an unnamed couple, one played by Italian giallo master Dario Argento and the other by “The Mother and the Whore” star Francoise Lebrun, as his wife. Both performers are walking cinematic references, but “Vortex” doesn’t exactly play like a mashup of the horror and melodrama that they collectively invoke by default; instead, the movie unfolds with the slow-burn, real-time quality of Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman,” as the camera tracks the characters through a claustrophobic apartment and occasionally to the streets below. And, like “Amour,” it finds a desperate husband attempting to care for his wife despite the obvious end in sight. It’s an arresting conceit from the start, when Lebrun’s character wakes up alongside her husband and exits the bed as the frame gradually splits in two, and Noé’s commitment to the approach allows it to remain durable throughout despite a few patience-trying passages.
From the moment it begins, the couple’s experiences drift apart and overlap many times over. The effect is less dizzying than meditative, as Noé and cinematographer Benoit Debie settle into the immersive rhythm of their subjects’ lives. At times, “Vortex” adopts a documentary-like quality, with Noé’s usual blinking effect in place of invisible edits as the only discernible reminder of the auteur behind the scenes.
The minimal plot of “Vortex,” which was improvised off a 10-page concept and shot in early 2021, suits its fly-on-the-wall approach: Much of the movie has been built around the prospects of simply watching people go about their lives, either in denial of the fragility surrounding them or distracted from it by routine. While its protagonists may be on their last legs, they aren’t rushing to get there. In a lovely opener, Noé finds the couple sitting comfortably on their Paris balcony, enjoying a glass of wine as they gaze out at the city. The credits introduce both director and stars with the years of their birth beneath their names, underlining the mortality in play. “Life is a dream,” Argento says, but with the crisis that follows, “Vortex” introduces the slow drip of a wakeup call to that cozy sentiment.
Argento plays an aging film critic attempting to write a book about cinema and dreams, while Lebrun’s a retired therapist who continually loses track of where she is and who’s around her. At times, their grown son (Alex Lutz) overtakes one of the partitions as well, begging his parents to move into an assisted living complex despite as they resist the pressure to abandon their home. Struggling from recurring issues with substance abuse, their offspring has enough to worry about on his own, including the life of his young son. Such complications gradually coalesce as “Vortex” wanders through one scene after the next, with sudden emergencies that punctuate the proceedings at most unexpected moments.
While less riveting than immersive, the movie exists in a fascinating state of uncertainty, allowing its viewers to settle into its naturalistic circumstances. However, the dueling frames maintain a baseline of anxiety that begins to reflect the emotional undercurrent afflicting its characters. Where should we watch to catch the right action? Early on, Argento sits at the typewriter while Lebrun goes to the store. Her wanderings are so passive that it makes more sense to watch the active Argento instead, until it becomes clear that Lebrun has entered a terrible state of confusion about her surroundings, forcing her husband to track her down. “Vortex” frequently builds to these sudden crescendos, with the passivity of everyday life taking sudden turns as the couple’s immediate future becomes an open question.
Noé opens with a dedication “to all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts,” a touching sentiment borne out by the drama that follows and embodied by its small cast. Argento delivers a fitfully involving performance, driven by the chatty energy of his real-life persona, but Lebrun is the true standout — her unsteady character transitions from lucid to confused and back again with extraordinary subtlety. The split screens rarely push into showy territory, though at times one side of the frame becomes more prominent than the other. “Vortex” rarely erupts with new developments, as Noé seems more content to hover within the two-pronged delicacy of his subjects’ lives. But occasional moments jolt us out of the hypnotic state engendered by this approach, and a key moment that illustrates the movie’s title leads to one of the most striking images in Noé’s career: the literal swirling vortex of a toilet flush, with discarded papers at the center of the wet mass, as the clarity of the written word collapses into the nothingness that awaits us all.
Has Gaspar Noé gone soft? “Vortex” certainly doesn’t offer the kind of balletic chaos that the filmmaker’s most committed fans expect. But it’s not an easy sit, nor does it settle for a sanitized vision. As with “Enter the Void,” Noé has made an incisive look at life and death through the prism of people who aren’t ready to let go, or even remotely prepared for it. At the same time, the movie brings a more compassionate angle to that theme: There’s nothing remotely nihilistic about the way he approaches the sorry state of this family as it gradually becomes undone. Instead, the filmmaker has made a rather soulful look at what it means to grasp onto life in its waning moments, and invites his audience into the center of that dilemma.
Its hefty running time may be the only true barrier to entry, as the glacial pace of “Vortex” sometimes tests the patience of even the most committed viewers. True to form, Noé delivered “Vortex” to Cannes at the very last minute, with a print still wet from the lab. In the past, he has continued to tweak his projects before releasing them in theaters, and “Vortex” could certainly benefit from a few trims. In this case, that would actually suit the movie, a tribute to the ever-evolving nature of life and its many unpredictable twists.
“Vortex” premiered out of competition at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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