Movies · Reviews

Gaspar Noé’s ‘Vortex’ is a Tender Experimental Dive Into Dementia

Split screen entertainment is back and sadder than ever.
Vortex Gaspar Noe
Wild Bunch / NYFF
By  · Published on September 30th, 2021

The question going into Vortex Gaspar Noé‘s film tracking the final hours of an old Parisian couple’s dementia-laden lives — is whether or not the French writer-director is capable of pulling off something so sincere. With Irreversible and Enter the Void, the gritty, psychedelic provocateur has proven himself a master of avant-garde shock. But can he endear viewers to a wandering elderly couple without alienating them with his approach? The answer is a short, sweet, and resounding “yes.”

Vortex is the coming of a new Noé, characterized by emotional maturity, balance, hope, and kindness — in addition to his usual experimentalism and provocation. It is by no means a light watch nor is it a removal of the old Noé, but it isn’t punishing like his other work. It’s curious and inviting, even a bit dull. If past Noé seeks to traumatize you in hope of awakening you, Vortex aims to soften you in hope of a gentler awakening, this time to the fragility of life, the inevitability of the end.

Noé rolls the full opening credits before the film starts, a move that allows the eventual finale to sink in without the disturbance of the post-credits rigmarole. However, moving the end credits to the beginning doesn’t stop Noé from employing a second stylized opening credits sequence over the initial shots, per Noé’s typical introductory abrasions. The names of the leads flash on the screen in big, bold letters with accompanying birth years to highlight their ages.

The couple is played by Françoise Lebrun (1944) and Mr. Giallo himself, writer-director Dario Argento (1940). While it’s likely a dream for Noé to direct the Italian icon, the film itself seems unconcerned with Argento’s style or celebrity (or with Lebrun’s for that matter). There are nods to the giallo in lighting and design, but Argento lovers shouldn’t go into Vortex expecting a horror-adjacent experience. This is tender, more like Amour or 45 Years than Climax or Tenebrae. As the sentiment of the dedication expresses, it’s for “all those whose minds will decompose before their hearts.”

Plot-wise, there isn’t much to spill or spoil. We’re voyeurs in the experience, following the couple as they go through normal and bastardized versions of their routines and do inexplicable things they don’t realize they’re doing. At one point, an overheard talk show in the background introduces the concept of traumatic memory versus healthy memory, a theme teased out across the film, as we witness memory fail both characters in real-time. There’s a deep sadness in watching them, but Noé is smart to employ a button-pushing sense of humor to keep us afloat. Few others could make a kid slamming a toy car on a table for several minutes funny.

Formally, on the other hand, there’s a lot going on. You might be wondering how one camera manages to follow at the back of two separate people for the duration of a film. Noé was clearly wondering the same, and he came up with a simple, radical solution: split-screen entertainment. The lion’s share of Vortex is comprised of two frames within the larger picture. Two cameras operate independently, following the couple around. Sometimes they do their own thing in completely separate places, and other times they meet in the same room and both frames become inverse shots of each other from the other’s perspective.

In essence, we’re watching two feature films play out next to each other at the same time. And if that isn’t impressive enough from a technical perspective, most takes are remarkably long, some lasting minutes as they track the tedium and delirium of the situation. All the while, Noé laces experimental ticks throughout.

For example, the camera blinks erratically and unflinchingly, as if simulating minor cuts, but the scene doesn’t cut or end. The camera just blinks again, like voyeur eyes watching from behind, and the story continues unphased. On another occasion, he presents us with a static sepia-colored image and lingers on it, proceeding to fade the full-color spectrum in so slowly that it seems like an optical illusion — like the color was there all along. It’s subtle, yet so strange in the way Noé likes to be. There’s no innate cinematic power to all of it. But the creativity of his choices is invigorating and contagious.

Of course, like most Noé films, Vortex aims to get under your skin. It just does so differently. It’s always hard to determine whether an artist’s intention to evoke frustration via overwrought repetition is “good” or “bad,” as is the case here. But hot damn, it’s effective. There’s no doubt that Vortex feels overlong (and bears a 135-minute runtime to support the claim). However, that also feels intentional, like a play on a theme.

Perhaps the lengthiness of Vortex is a reflection of the process of reaching the end, and the feeling of having seen the same thing over and over speaks to the aimlessness and confusion that debilitates our leads. Or maybe Noé just missed the mark on using too many of the same tricks. Either way, it’s a movie you’ll want to watch twice, if not for the love of the leads or the fresh visual language (executed beautifully by regular cinematographer Benoît Debie), then simply to see what happens in both frames.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.