Gaspar Noe’s most compassionate film of his career, Vortex, recalls Michael Haneke’s 2012 masterpiece Amour as both films explore the final months of an elderly married couple who have been married for nearly seven decades. In Noe’s version, the film is very similar to Amour in terms of its existential themes of death and the cruel nature of aging. It’s also about a French husband taking care of his ill wife, who sadly suffers from dementia and is only getting worse by the day. It’s quite remarkable how Noe, most known for his controversial, disturbing, and violent masterpieces like Irreversible (2003), Enter the Void (2010), and Climax (2019), has turned the tides of his provocations and has made a poignantly crafted and superbly acted two-hander that is also a humane exploration of aging, illness, and the passage of time.
This is Noe’s most restrained work to date, while still evoking distress and staying true to his thematic and technical sensibilities. Released by Utopia Distribution, the visually arresting and emotionally wrenching tour-de-force should find an audience with art-house filmgoers and the film will eventually find its way to being considered an essential piece of cinema in many years to come with its everlasting staying power and remarkable visual style.
With the exception of the opening and final scenes, the scenes of a film historian and writer credited as The Father (Dario Argento) and his wife, referred to in the credits as The Mother (Françoise LeBrun), who is retired from the medical field, are mostly in split-screen that focus on both characters and serve as a vessel into their conciseness. Even when a few other characters are introduced in the film, the couple’s son, Stephane (Alex Lutz), visits them with his son (Kylian Dheret), and it’s quite fascinating how the blocking and staging of their movements match up, while the eyeline and camera positions do not. Noe with frequent cinematographer Benoît Debie together have delivered some of the most experimental and uniquely blocked filmmaking you will ever see in a film.
The film mostly takes place in a Persian apartment like Amour’s, but the apartment here has quite a personality to it, as we see vintage movie posters of Godard’s A Woman is a Woman and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in the background. The apartment is surrounded by a clutter of film books, magazines, and VHS tapes. From the opening of the film, the couple are drinking and toasting together outdoors on their patio. It’s a very tender and peaceful scene. It’s also a quick glimpse of just how peaceful life can be one moment, while the next moment can easily slip into crisis and distress the next. It’s one of the few scenes in the film where it’s not split-screen. Right after that, Gaspar Noe’s name appears on screen with his birth year of 1963 as he cuts to an old music video of a song titled “Mon Amie la Rose” by French soprano Francois Hardy that was released the same year.
In the next scene, we see the unnamed married couple sleeping on their bed together, and a split screen is formed as the couple’s odyssey into the cruelty of nature and aging begins to kick in. As Noe points out in his tautology from Irreversible, “Time destroys all things,” and this is emphasized to an even more melancholic degree here. However, it doesn’t feel punishing or too distressing. If anything, Noe shows us that he has tenderness and heart in this film. It is reported he instantly wrote and directed this film after he suffered a severe brain hemorrhage that almost ended his life. Through his close call to death, we can see Noe is determined to make a respectful and melancholic examination of the inevitable.
Upon waking up, the wife wakes up first and walks into the kitchen and into other rooms as we hear a radio show host having some deeply compelling existential discussions on death and the grieving process. In these opening scenes of the film, the wife ventures off from the apartment and walks across the street to a small convenience store and asks the owner where she can find some toys. In a singular unbroken long take, she circles around the store and you feel her deliriousness. Meanwhile, her husband does his early morning routine of checking his cell phone for missed calls and texts, gets to work writing on his typewriter, and eventually realizes his wife has ventured off. He instantly gets ready and walks across the street and finally finds her strolling along in a store. It’s there where we realize that he is also serving as a caretaker to his wife in her wake of severe dementia.
We soon learn that the husband can’t be the most effective caretaker–not because he’s preoccupied with a book he’s writing on the relationship between cinema and dreams, or that we learn he has a mistress on the side in his cinema club–but because we find out that he is suffering from heart complications. He takes heart medicine, he has had a heart attack in the past, and he often has coughing fits.
By titling the film Vortex, Noe uses the notion of how the mind and heart serve as whirlpools that keep us functioning. As time passes, these organs deteriorate until we decay. What sounds distressing and depressing on paper is anything but. While certainly lofty in its subject matter where audiences might reject the notion of wanting to even watch a film about aging, illness, and dying—there is something quite harmonic and liberating in what Noe is doing here. By almost dying himself recently from a brain hemorrhage, Noe is able to pay a modest and respectful tribute to the final cycle of life. The film never feels punishing or cynical like some of his other films. In fact, it feels very compassionate and empathetic. The film’s feel becomes a serene fusion of a deeply humane drama and a luscious marital drama.
Noe once again has helmed another framework in which his cinematic sensibilities feel cathartic. Comparisons to the work of Ingmar Bergman’s and Haneke’s Amour are inevitable, but Noe’s rapture feels singular. The result becomes a deeply engaging yarn from Noe. It’s another tour-de-force that certainly holds some harrowing and suffocating moments that we have experienced from Noe before, except this time it’s not violent, but every bit as anxiety inducing. One particular moment involves the father slowly walking from room to room as he slowly marches through his apartment in a unhurried tracking shot in real time, holding his heart in severe pain. It’s a difficult scene to endure, but the scenes that follow are even more heartbreaking but equally delicate.
This is also accomplished thanks to the performances of Dario Arentgo and Françoise Lebrun. The casting of Argento at first sounded gimmicky, but his character and performance become so involved that he strips himself of his iconic stardom, delivering a very natural performance where we see him as a deeply concerned husband that is trying to care for his wife while dealing with his own illness. Lebrun here is also first-rate. She is mostly known for her performances in the French film The Mother and the Whore, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and in Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia, starring Meryl Streep— here she delivers a very vulnerable and naturalistic performance where you find yourself heartbroken as her memory slips. Her expressive emotions and eyes lure you into a very inviting matter, making it impossible to not feel sympathy for her. In Amour, we see arguments, disagreements, and other obstacles arise between the married couple, yet their love for one another on screen comes across as resonant and noble.
Noe has explored death before in his third film, the 2010 film Enter the Void, which was also about death as it was an abyss into the afterlife as Noe’s camera eavesdropped inside the soul of his departed protagonist. In essence, he surveys death again, as both the husband and wife are in their final days as other obstacles arise that try to keep her slipping deeper into dementia, and yet, the nihilism that has been on display in Noe’s previous films is superseded with benevolence and rapport. Out of all of Noe’s films, Vortex is the one where he brings the most concern to his characters. The French auteur has been known for shocks and provocations, giving his detractors reasons to be reluctant about embarking on his new film. By setting aside these preconceived notions about Noe, both Noe detractors and enthusiasts will find that the provocateur has delivered another masterful film that is both potent and strikingly beautiful. It really is another uncompromising film that I will become besotted with in part of its haunting artistry. Could I have just watched the best film so far in 2022?
Vortex is now screening in NY, LA, and Chicago.