After a career built off the back of headline-courting extremity, Vortex sees Gaspar Noe in his least provocative mood ever and yet is still perhaps his most distressing film. Where the miserable fates of Noe’s previous characters, from Irreversible to Climax, were often stomach-turning, they were at least easy to distance yourself from, a luxury not afforded by Vortex. Over the course of almost two and a half challenging hours, Noe presents us with the gradual decline and death of an elderly couple, shot with total empathy but also utterly unsparing honesty as physical and mental ailments grind a marriage and its inhabitants into the earth, a fate unavoidable to pretty much any and all viewers.
Played by French cinema staple Francoise Lebrun and legendary giallo director Dario Argento, this unnamed wife and husband live together in a mazy Parisian flat, clearly after many decades of marriage. She’s struggling with worsening dementia, while he’s ever less able to care for her thanks to a heart condition, and their unstable son Stephane (Alex Lutz) is doing his best but is also all too aware of his shortcomings as a carer, desperate to have his parents to move into a monitored home, or at least bring a health worker into their home every now and then.
It’s a trio of quietly shattering – and frequently improvised – performances, capturing the fear and frustration of facing death head on. Lebrun’s terrified quiet is particularly tragic, unable to conjure the sentences she needs to express herself outside of wishing she could be less of a burden to her family. Noe treats her dementia with the greatest of care, letting it drive the story without having it only pop up at particularly plot-opportune moments, and giving a wrenching power to the moments of lucidity.
Vortex doesn’t shy away from the emotional and moral complexity of witnessing someone’s final days. The husband can’t help but be angry at his wife despite his better intentions, her confused decisions seeming almost malevolent at times as she ‘tidies up’ his desk by ripping up and binning all the notes he made for a planned book, and the pair’s relationship with Stephane is just as complicated. He’s genuinely loving and caring and his visits, accompanied by his young son Kiki, clearly do his parents a world of psychological good, but he’s bilking money from them for his various side-hustles.
Empathetic and withholding judgement, Vortex can feel a world away from the sensory assaults of Noe’s previous work, but that doesn’t mean he’s become any less formally daring or viscerally affecting – for example, there’s a heart attack scene here that is just terrifyingly convincing. Vortex’s key stylistic tic is a split-screen approach that has separate cameras following the husband and wife no matter what they’re each doing or how near or far they are from one another. The effect is initially disorienting but eventually you realise there’s really no other way to tell this story, keeping the couple simultaneously together and apart, always sharing the same screen, but often occupying different frames, an ironclad relationship torn by dementia but just about holding on.
It also allows Noe to grant his audience a sort of visual and intellectual freedom, letting you decide exactly what to focus on in any given scene, each side of the screen telling a different emotional story. To catch everything would surely require multiple viewings, but, with a film as relentlessly and authentically sad as Vortex, a rewatch might be a very tall order.