This review originally ran as part of Paste’s NYFF 2021 coverage.
In 2020, Gaspar Noé had a brush with death. The provocative French director of Climax and Enter the Void suffered a brain hemorrhage not long before the entire world went into pandemic-induced lockdown that March. When Noé emerged from the hospital to a planet in shambles, he nonetheless felt like he had been given a second chance at life. What arose from this trauma is what has been described as the director’s most personal—and even accessible—film: A largely improvised, 10-page outline that patiently details the complementary experiences of two declining adults in their twilight years. This is intensified not only by Noé’s recent dance with death, but by his own familial ties to losing one’s mind due to age. A title card at the beginning of Vortex reads “To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.”
It’s a warm sentiment for a decidedly bleak endeavor, but one in which the austerity and downward spiral of all characters involved makes Noé’s film feel like less than a worthwhile affair. Vortex is a measured, formally experimental and nearly two-and-a-half hour portrait of a couple in their final days, filmed entirely in a split-screen diptych and starring two industry veterans. Italian giallo director Dario Argento plays a man known only to us as “The Father,” and French actress Françoise Lebrun (best known for her role as Veronika in 1973’s acclaimed and divisive The Mother and the Whore) portrays “The Mother”—evoking more than one similarity to last year’s Oscar-winning Anthony Hopkins drama, The Father.
But in Vortex, the Father is a man whose mind remains sound and sharp into his late age. He works on the outline for his upcoming book on film and dreams, entitled “Psyche,” dabbles in an illicit tryst with another woman (an aspect of the character entirely of Argento’s making), and tends both to his deteriorating wife and his deteriorating heart. Initially, the once-happy couple is filmed relaxing on the patio of their expansive French apartment, a cavernous space filled nearly room to room, ceiling to floor, with books, film posters and works of art. They toast to life—that which is a “dream within a dream”—and are afterwards filmed climbing into bed together. But when they awake, the screen has become severed in two. The split-screen is utilized for the rest of the film to emphasize the opposing, yet overlapping deteriorations of both the Mother and the Father, each side of the screen concurrently following the two of them.
The Father’s heart condition is paralleled by the Mother’s gradually degrading case of Alzheimer’s, robbing her of her memory and her agency as a formerly prosperous psychologist. Lebrun brilliantly embodies the frail, frightened woman becoming a prisoner to her own mind; her accidents, which may elicit laughs under different circumstances, unable to be perceived as anything but acutely horrific. It is terrifying to think of ourselves befalling such a state one day and to feel so close to it—so terrifyingly personified in Lebrun’s stumbling, stammering Mother—that Vortex could be seen as just a much a horror film as Noé’s other work. It is equally chilling to consider having to watch someone we love wither away in real time, into a ghost of their former, vibrant self. In this challenging role, the legendary Suspiria director gives an impressive turn in a rare acting appearance—and his first lead acting part whatsoever.
As the Father struggles to keep track of the Mother and maintain her quality of life—be it searching for her as she ambles aimlessly through different shops after wandering from their home without warning, or making sure she doesn’t leave the gas stove on and suffocate them to an early death—the couple’s adult son Stéphane (Alex Lutz) acknowledges that the hardships of caretaking are not limited to his father. Thus, it is in Stéphane’s opinion that the two of them resign to an assisted care facility. Naturally, the Father objects. There’s no need for him to be cared for when his mind is still sharp enough; not just to take care of himself and his wife, but enough to remain actively embedded in the art world. Still, the Mother’s condition worsens every day, the passage of time purposefully made unclear as each new day with the family places them in a darker state than the one before.
At 134 minutes, Vortex manages to never feel its unwieldy runtime. The intimacy afforded the audience as to the minutiae of the Mother and Father’s lives stays largely absorbing, coupled with the voyeuristic camera courtesy of cinematographer Benoît Debie. Immaculately staged, the camera quietly trails the Mother and Father around their living space as if the audience is minding the elderly couple themselves, eager to assist should they need it and further pained when they can only look on in despair. And, though distracting at first, the diptych method becomes easy to adjust to, helping to keep the otherwise mundane story engaging. Because, ultimately, that’s what the split-screen amounts to: A gimmick that keeps the film afloat. It often conveys an emotional schism between two people, but it is not a particularly clever means of articulating such conflict, and starts to feel especially superfluous when both sides of the screen simply duplicate the same image.
Eventually, Vortex reaches a place in its narrative where you understand that things aren’t going to get better, for anyone, at any point at all, ever, and the chore of weathering the film’s final act becomes an exercise in sheer mental torture. Vortex is a difficult film, even a cruel film, but it’s still easy to appreciate its reason for existence in tangent with Noé’s current preoccupation with mortality. It’s as if Noé wanted to make a piece of art as distressingly close to death as possible—to roleplay the worst possible outcome as a direct response to how the director skated by the grim reaper just a year prior.
Viewed this way, the film becomes a coping mechanism not unlike Kirsten Johnson’s much more optimistic documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead, in which the director acts out humorous hypothetical deaths for her ailing father. And while there is no shortage of overly saccharine and optimistic modern films out there right now, the utter undaunted misery of Vortex amounts to needless cruelty. The unpleasant nihilism of the film offers no catharsis. Instead, it simply serves as a blunt-force reenactment of life’s only true certainty. We are all aware that we’re going to die someday, be it while in sound mind and body or otherwise. Vortex, while visually captivating, only functions as a window through which to look at death detached from the beauty of life.
Director: Gaspar Noé
Starring: Dario Argento, Françoise Lebrun, Alex Lutz
Release Date: September 30, 2021 (NYFF)
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.