“It would be better if I were dead,” the old lady laments to her even older husband in Gaspar Noé’s startling new film Vortex, and he makes no effort to disagree. Even though its title might have worked just fine for one of the perennially youth-obsessed director’s previous films, here it serves as an indicator of life swirling down the drain. This close-up look at a married couple on the brink of the inevitable introduces a surprising and demanding new chapter to the throbbingly flamboyant director’s career, which is normally preoccupied with sex, drugs and music.
Stylistically, the nearly 2½-hour film, which was shown as a “Cannes premiere” and not in competition, is notable in that the two main characters, a long-married couple knocking around in their cluttered Paris apartment, were shot with separate cameras and presented simultaneously next to one another on the screen; all the way through, you can look at whomever you want, or both at roughly the same time. Sometimes they cross and intervene.
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Clearly, this is not the Gaspar Noé we know and sometimes love. This time he’s chronicling not his usual subject, youth, but old age and imminent death. As such, it joins a remarkable — and very, very different — film on the same subject, veteran Mexican director Arturo Ripstein’s bold and shocking black-and-white 2019 drama Devil Between the Legs, as rare unvarnished or sentimentalized examinations of old age.
Noé’s previous films are visually bold, even assaultive, but this one takes a rather different tack. The two main figures, a long-married couple, are portrayed by veteran Italian horror maestro Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Suspiria, Tenebrae, et al.), who’s now 80 and very crotchety-looking, and French actress Francoise Lebrun (The Mother and the Whore and numerous outings with Marguerite Duras and Paul Vecchiali), who is 77.
Physically, everything in sight is old, not just the individuals but the quartier, the buildings, the books, the typewriter, all the papers and other crap in the house. Argento gets around better than does Lebrun, who looks like she hasn’t been outside in years and shuffles around without much of a clue what’s going on.
For his part, the man has the intention of working, of getting something done, but more often he’s complaining or looking for a book he can’t find or talking about something he intends to do. More than anything, he’s swamped by the towering number of books that surround him in every part of the flat, although occasionally he finds one that interests him; he’s been a film journalist and he has books on Renoir, Dreyer and Sjostrom at hand.
As the separate cameras follow each of them on different sides of the screen, one naturally tends to pingpong back and forth between the two. They move slowly, especially Lebrun, and they’re sometimes sedentary. Cinematically, the concept does reflect some of the split-screen techniques Noé has used on previous projects, but here the technique is constant, the effect very different, for very evident reasons.
It’s quite clear that Lebrun has lost nearly all of her capacities; she’s able to shuffle very slowly around the apartment, but she can barely speak coherently enough to be understood. By rights she should be in an assisted-living facility, but Argento selfishly brushes the idea aside, no doubt believing he’s still capable of getting along on his own.
For a while, it’s not clear that Noé’s gamble is going to pay off. One does get used to looking at the side-by-side panels but, if you know that you’re going to be watching this for 2½ hours, you do have to sort of brace yourself for a long haul. Other people do turn up on occasion and the film does briefly get down onto the streets, but it’s still a highly claustrophobic experience, one you do need to settle into as with a longish plane flight.
Still, the prolonged period spent with these two does provide a bracing, depressing, realistic and altogether sobering insight into what your grandparents, parents and, one day, you will have to face if you live long enough — another way of saying it is that what Noé confronts us with is a universal experience. The jury might remain out for some time as to whether his two-camera approach brings something extra to the table or not, though the novelty definitely adds an extra and unusual layer of interest.
The images that remain most indelibly in the mind are those of Lebrun shuffling through the flat, clearly suffering, feeling utterly helpless to improve her situation and yet not being properly tended to by her husband. Others try to lend a hand, but Dad’s a selfish rascal at bottom. Both actors have some exceptional moments.
You have to brace yourself to an extent to watch Vortex and settle in for the long haul, but it’s certain you haven’t seen anything quite like it either.