Gaspar Noé’s latest film, VORTEX, is dedicated “to all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts”. It’s a horrifying sentiment and fits well with Noé’s exploration of ageing, mortality, and dementia in his relentlessly heartbreaking but thoroughly entrancing experiment of a film.
VORTEX opens with an idyllic scene of the film’s elderly couple (played by Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento) enjoying a bottle of wine together on their Paris balcony and musing on the dream within a dream that is their life together. This will prove to be the happiest that we ever see the characters in the film: as the man later illustrates to his son (Alex Lutz) by gesturing down the slope of his arm, it’s all downhill from here. Noé then flings us into the intertwining themes of ageing and mortality by displaying their years of birth alongside the principal actors’ names in the credits.
“VORTEX is an intense experience but is never anything other than fully immersive even as it pulls us into the desperately sad black hole of mental decline.”
After this opening scene, the screen splits in two, revealing the film’s major experimental conceit. Each half of the screen follows a different character either showing what that character is doing independently of the other character or showing two different perspectives on the same scene.
Most frequently this split-screen is used to highlight the gulfs between characters, specifically the elderly couple. The woman has steadily worsening dementia and we see her pottering around their Paris flat aimlessly or wandering out and getting lost in nearby shops. The man meanwhile is myopically focused on writing a book about cinema and dreams or pursuing an affair with his former lover. Though the couple live in the same flat surrounded by the detritus of their life together, dementia has robbed them of the connection they once shared. The woman’s behaviour exasperates the man who pulls further and further away just when she needs him the most. In a brief lucid moment, she tells him that all she needs of him is that he “Be… be here.”
Occasionally the split-screen effect follows the couple’s son, Stéphane. When first introduced, he’s a breath of fresh air: a strong, calming influence who shows genuine concern for both his parents and offers to find the help that they so clearly need. But as the film progresses, in the parts of the screen that follow him, we see him struggle with his own past mental health issues and current drug addiction issues. His presence, so reassuring when he was introduced, is steadily eroded until we’re as concerned for his wellbeing and that of his own son (Kylian Dheret) as we are for the elderly couple.
There are also brief moments of connection: the two screens sometimes show contrasting tableaus to emphasise characters’ connections despite their different locations. In rare moments of connection and mental lucidity, a character’s hand may slip from one half of the screen to the other suggesting a brief bridging of the gaps between them.
Dementia does not get better—a “disease without a cure” as the man says several times—and so the film follows the continual decline of the woman and the man’s increasing lack of patience until both characters are lost in a fog. Though immersed in the film, we long for it to come to an end if only to be free of the relentless bleakness of this couple’s struggles. VORTEX is an intense experience but is never anything other than fully immersive even as it pulls us into the desperately sad black hole of mental decline. By the time the camera twirls upwards into the Paris sky, we breathe a sigh of relief that it’s over while mourning the end of a truly innovative cinematic experience.
VORTEX is set to be released in UK cinemas on 13th May 2022.