Published on June 12th, 2022 | by Craig Silliphant0
Gaspar Noe is back, with a different kind of visceral filmmaking and horror — old age and dementia. Vortex is a difficult but amazing film.
Since 1998’s I Stand Alone, I’ve been watching Gaspar Noe films with interest. They’re always visceral and many of them hold some combination of horror, surrealness, and brilliant filmmaking. But it wasn’t until 2018’s masterpiece, Climax, that I realized I might be a bigger Noe fan than I had always thought. Before that film, if you had asked me about my favourite cinematic provocateurs, I’d probably rattle off names like Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, and Nicolas Winding Refn. But Climax blew the doors off the whole thing for me, adding Noe’s filmography to that list.
Noe’s first feature length film since Climax, Vortex is just as difficult as some of his earlier work, but for way more human reasons. He’s still forcing us to look at something uncomfortable, but it’s infinitely more relatable than what he’s usually concerned with.
The iconic Italian filmmaker Dario Argento plays Lui, a man in his twilight years who is writing a book about film and dreams. He lives with his wife Elle, played by Françoise Lebrun. Elle is a retired psychiatrist stricken with an ever-increasing dementia. The couple have a grown son who has had his own problems. I’ll just point out here that Argento and Lebrun each give a masterclass in performance.
The major filmmaking conceit of Vortex is that pretty much the whole thing is in split screen. We follow both Lui and Elle (and a couple of other characters) through their days and nights. Sometimes they are together in a shot. Sometimes they’re in bed next to each other, but each in their own box. It felt like more than a gimmick.
My interpretation is that we are all in our own little boxes. We may live with someone for 60 years and know them intimately, but we don’t really know them at all. Lui and Elle are together, yet also each alone. And age and disease are beginning to divide them further. It doesn’t mean they are losing their love for each other — but that they’re drifting apart, on separate boats, in an ocean of fate.
Much of the movie has to do with memory, dream, and other states. The elderly couple live among their past; books, photographs, a lifetime of memories in a messy but cozy apartment. And I may be reading too much into it, but I also sensed a metaphor for cinema itself. Much is made of cinema being a dream, seen in a dark theatre. And when Lui gets together with his film group, living in the past of great movies, one of them declares, “We are the memory of cinema.” They’re the last torchbearers of a dying art.
Oddly enough, and stay with me here, I saw parallels to Top Gun: Maverick. The Airboss tells Maverick he’s a dinosaur that will soon be gone. Mav replies, “Maybe. But not today.” Textually, they’re referring to Maverick the old dog fighter pilot in a world of drones and tech. Metatextually, Tom Cruise is an aging matinee idol who has taken on the Sisyphean task of pushing hard to keep movies relevant (granted, on a blockbuster scale).
Is Vortex also about the death of cinema?
Lui and his friends are also on their way out — maybe not today — but soon. Film may suffer the same fate as fighter pilots and old film lovers. One reading of Vortex is that it’s about watching the artform you have devoted a life to studying and loving and believing in slip away into history. Lui and his gang want to keep the fire of cinema alive in a world of TikTok and content and art becoming artifice.
While I thought the movie was absolutely brilliant, that comes with a caveat or two. First, I’ve seen this movie before; Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, Haneke’s Amour, Anthony Hopkins in The Father, and many more. Of course, a movie is still valid, even if we’ve seen its ideas and themes before. But the beats of the story are very familiar, even if Noe does them a grand service through his very filmmaking and through his actors. It is nuanced and so real that it hurts, even if you haven’t experienced the tragedy of dementia in your own life.
The other caveat isn’t a complaint. It’s simply that Vortex is obviously not the feel-good movie of the year. It has a much slower, more distinct pace than Climax (even if you can draw some strange parallels between the two movies, a la people locked in a space together going mad).
It stares into the face of old age and death, watching the people you surround yourself with through a lifetime fade out like the end of a film. To be blunt, it’s pretty goddamn depressing. But if you can get on that wavelength, then it’s doing what cinema should be doing — immersing you fully in a world so you care about the people that inhabit it. Making you think about things bigger than yourself. Making you feel something.
Like many of Gaspar Noe’s work, Vortex doesn’t exist to be enjoyed. It’s a film to be experienced.