An elderly couple struggling to come to terms with their quickly-fading bodies and minds are the center of Vortex, a devastating new feature from director Gaspar Noé that premiered last month at Cannes before screening at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Noé has made a name for himself with provocative features that take wild chances in both style and content: Irreversible for its graphic violence and reverse storytelling, Love for its graphic sex scenes and use of 3D, and most recently Climax for its trippy LSD vibes, played out though wild performances and long, swirling camera takes.
On the surface, Vortex might seem to be a restrained outing from the director: no graphic sex or violence, largely a two-character, single-setting chamber drama charting the relationship between an elderly married couple in their twilight. Conceptually, Vortex isn’t too far away from Michael Haneke’s Oscar-winning Amour.
But in execution, Vortex is a nerve-rattling, claustrophobic nightmare that treats the ailments of old age with the trepidation of a horror movie villain: the threat of death lurks around every corner, and makes its presence known through maladies both physical and mental.
And Noé ratchets up the tension and claustrophobia with his primary visual choice: nearly the entire movie unfolds in split screen, with a separate camera tracking each of the main characters. Throughout much of Vortex, we watch competing screens tracking the movements of each protagonist in third person, an ironic nod to video game aesthetics.
Noé cannily cuts multiple takes together through lengthy tracking shots, hiding the fact that a cameraman would be visible when the characters are facing each other, and allowing them to sync up naturally when they are both on screen.
As the wife, French actress Françoise Lebrun delivers a heart-rending performance as a woman suffering from dementia who struggles to communicate with those around her… or comprehend what they are telling her. Lebrun wonderfully transitions from portraying someone walking around in a fugue state to fleeting moments of lucidity in which she is able to briefly convey real emotion.
On the other half of Vortex’s screen, Italian horror maestro Dario Argento stars as the husband, a man recovering from a heart attack who struggles to make it out of bed in the morning. Argento’s character simply isn’t up to the task of caring for his wife at this stage of her illness, both physically, and perhaps more profoundly, emotionally. There’s a devastating scene between him and a former lover in which he displays the kind of affection that’s totally absent in scenes with his wife.
Unlike Haneke’s Amour, which treated love and death with romantic ideals, Noé rubs our noses in the bleak practicalities of getting old and the prisons we build around ourselves. Argento’s character is drowning in the books he has collected over his lifetime, the notes he has taken that will go unfinished. Dirty dishes pile up in the kitchen. This Paris apartment feels lived-in in the worst ways imaginable.
Alex Lutz plays the son that is called in for assistance, a drug-addicted single father struggling to raise his own child. He is no help to his parents, of course, and only serves to bear the burden of their exasperated final moments. We can sympathize.
Vortex runs for 135 minutes, and feels every moment, and even those who appreciate what the film has accomplished will be thankful by the time it is over and relieved to get away from it. But Vortex is a knowing and honest treatise on the human condition, and we can’t help but admit that these characters will be us one day, and maybe they are some of the ones we love now. This is a great film, perhaps, but also the feel-bad movie of the year.