Vortex, writer-director Gaspar Noè’s latest picture, is a slow, heartfelt portrait of an elderly couple (Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun) throughout their day-to-day lives, while respective physical and psychological ailments take their toll on them – both as individuals, as husband and wife, and as a family.
This is something of an unconventionally shocking turn for Noè – best known for sensationalist films such as Irreversible, Enter the Void and Climax – as Vortex feels distinctly mature and subtle by the director’s standards (he conceived the film after surviving a near fatal brain haemorrhage). While that may end up being the talking point for most viewers, this is a wonderful film on its own merit (although even having to justify it that way feels reductive) and is one of the Noè’s best films, if not his best.
This new direction is apparent from the opening credits, as he begins with a tender dedication to “all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts”. The stylisation of the title card is even a sly nod to this new pace for Noè; it is the first of his films in which the title does not appear fully capitalised. Although this may seem trivial to most viewers, his past stylings are so specific and intentional that I can’t imagine this being anything other than a deliberate choice.
One of the signatures of a Gaspar Noè film is the ‘gimmick’ (Irreversible’s structure, Love’s real sex, etc.) and if Vortex was to fall under the gimmick bracket, it would be the use of split-screens. The screen is divided for the entire film, apart from the opening scene, focusing on ‘Mother’ (Lebrun) and ‘The Father’ (Argento) simultaneously as they each go about their lives. However, as is also typical of the filmmaker, this goes beyond the surface gimmick and makes the film even more effective.
By splitting the screen, Noè creates a literal divide between the husband and wife, mirroring the divide growing between them thanks to Mother’s illness. Although this seems on-the-nose on paper, Vortex utilises it to great effect. Firstly, by choosing to begin splitting the screen after the first scene, in which the couple share a romantic breakfast on their balcony and offer toasts to their love and the “dream” that is their life, we see the rapid, overnight nature of how this illness can take over – just as their son, played by Alex Lutz, is shocked to see how his mother has changed, despite being perfectly healthy when he had seen her only three weeks beforehand.
Secondly, in contrast to this divide, it adds an extra warmth and weight to the moments we see illness give way to lucidity, where characters begin to reconnect, breaking through the barrier of the illness, but also through the film’s literal barrier, as they penetrate each other’s frames.
Finally, it adds a certain depth to the film. This technique allows viewers to unconsciously choose whom they can relate to, as they will inevitably focus on one of the two frames more dominantly, whether intentional or not, and this relation will emphasise the respective tragedies the characters go through. By utilising two simultaneous frames, and therefore forcing the audience to shift focus one way, the film also lends itself wonderfully to repeat viewings in a way few others do.
None of the direction of the film would mean a thing if it weren’t for the performances, and they really do make the film. Argento (obviously best known for his work behind the camera on some of Italy’s best and most iconic horror films) and Lebrun do stunning work here, giving raw, vulnerable performances that will cut right to your core. It’s easy to completely become engrossed in the performances and forget that they’re even acting, which is especially impressive for Argento, who is technically a non-actor.
Alex Lutz brings an incredible vulnerability and frustration to the role of ‘The Son’: a recovering addict trying to raise his own son Kiki, stay sober and care for his parents all at once. The performances, beyond the ‘gimmick’ of the split screen, are what really sets Vortex apart from similarly themed films like Relic and The Father (which are excellent films, but both rely to some extent on genre tropes and fantastical elements to emphasise the horrors of dementia) and they’ll sit with you for a long, long time.
The film could certainly use some trimming, at roughly 140 minutes, this could be a genuinely perfect film at 110 or 120 minutes. The film is slowly paced, which helps add to the tenderness of the piece, but there are times you feel as though the filmmaker becomes too caught up in his camerawork and staging, which can cause things to drag a bit.
Overall, this is a tender, heart-wrenching film and seems to signal a new, more mature phase in Gaspar Noè’s filmography.