Vortex Review – Gaspar Noé’s stunning split-screen descent into dementia | Movies
gaspar Noé casts his ferocious and cauterizing gaze on the spectacle of old age: the world of those who are about to enter the void. He brings a particular structural insight to it that I don’t think I’ve ever seen represented so clearly. Dying is Bifurcated: A real-time split-screen experience split between the caregiver and the person being cared for. An old married couple, people who have had a lifetime of wondering which of them will die first and which of them will have to bear the burden of care, find that it is not so clear during the terrible end of part itself.
Veteran director Dario Argento and actress, screenwriter and director Françoise Lebrun play a couple who live together in a chaotic little Parisian apartment covered in a pleasant jumble of books and papers. He’s obviously a filmmaker or maybe a writer, working on a book about cinema and dream called Psyche; she is a retired psychiatrist. They have a son, Stéphane (Alex Lutz) who is himself the father of a little boy, struggling with drugs, money and marital problems. The film opens – ominously – with a music video of Françoise Hardy performing the 60s song Mon Amie la Rose, about the mortality of flowers. Then Argento and Lebrun have a modest meal on their rickety terrace: these are Lebrun’s last moments of lucidity. We learn that she suffered a stroke a few years ago and has since descended into dementia; recently the rate of decline has accelerated.
Noé divides the screen in two, two stories that unfold simultaneously, showing in one half the character of Argento thoughtfully tinkering about the apartment, in denial of what is happening: reading, dozing, banging on his typewriter manual and also leave surreptitious phone messages, like a teenage boy in love, for a woman called Claire whom he has been miserably in love with for decades. Meanwhile, on the left of the screen, the character of Lebrun, with the impassive and leonine expression of those suffering from dementia, wanders the streets without telling her husband, or throws away all her notes, or dangerously leaves the gas lit, all in a miserable fog of ignorance.
Stéphane comes to see them, upset by what is happening, and by his own inability to convince them to enter a retirement home; it’s a subject complicated by his own history with his psychiatrist mother, struck by the fact that he and they now live in a world of drugs, legal and illegal. Noé will periodically concoct a camera cut in either frame and pick up from another point of view; occasionally the two scenes overlap, creating a Hockneyesque perspective dissonance. Brutally, the medium is the message. These two people will never share the same screen again.
It’s a film without the pornographic, psychedelic sheen of Noah’s earlier work, but those earlier images had a recurring trick: to force the audience to the brink of nausea by having them stare into a vortex of flickering strobe light. In this film, death is the vortex: the dark focus, whose gravitational pull grows stronger – and harder to avoid thinking about – with each passing year. And Vortex tells us something else about old age, which a severe and haughty film like Love by Michael Haneke would not grasp: death is chaotic, like life. It ends with things undone and in a messy mess. It is a work of winter maturity and true compassion.