'Vortex': Split-Screened And Somber, Gaspar Noé's Latest Old Age Drama Is A Whole New Form Of Gruelling [Cannes Review]

Note to self: do not get old. The alternative, i.e., death, may not be very pleasant but, sedate and dignified and swathed in vaguely biblical white sheets, it doesn’t get anything like the bad press that old age does in Gaspar Noé‘s “Vortex.” Let’s not forget that in “Enter the Void,” this same director made death seem like quite the trip – infinitely preferable to the progressively demeaning ravages of dementia or the Sword of Damocles that is a dodgy ticker. These are the two afflictions suffered by his “Vortex” stars – and therefore essentially by his “Vortex” audience – for a solidly grim, if often moving two-and-a-half hours, and frankly, they do not look like fun.

READ MORE: Cannes Film Festival 2021 Preview: 25 Films To Watch

The story of an elderly couple (“The Mother and the Whore” star Françoise Lebrun and le cinema’s Dario Argento in his first, and he claims, last starring role) whose winter years are blighted by degeneration and diseases the severity of which neither is willing to admit to, it seems a major departure from the garish provocations of Noé’s previous career – right until the moment that it’s not. An extended heart attack scene plays out with unbearable, unflinching dispassion: the stricken character shuffles interminably from one room to the next in a friendly, book-strewn apartment that suddenly seems like a vast, untraversable assault course, gasping, stumbling, wheezing, with a chesty death rattle playing an absurd and horrible kazoo… and you think huh, actually, maybe this is the most on-brand that Gaspar Noé, Prince of the provocative, Emir of the endurance test, Grand Poobah of the gratuitous, has ever been. 

READ MORE: Summer 2021 Preview: Over 50 Movies To Watch

The other giveaway that this latest in a rash of dementia movies is not the work of a more classical filmmaker like Florian Zeller (“The Father”), Harry Macqueen (“Supernova“) or Viggo Mortensen (“Falling“), is that there is, unsurprisingly, a gimmick. However, what is surprising is how well the gimmick works in this context and how it adds significant visual and thematic interest to what could otherwise be simply too claustrophobic, too unforgiving, too single-minded. Here, Noé’s formal innovation, after the 3D of “Love” (an ironic title, considering this movie bears the closest resemblance to Michael Haneke‘s even more austere “Amour“) and the time-inversion of “Irreversible” is to film all the action – which is to say a lot of inaction – with two cameras, one fixed on each character, and then to play both panels of footage simultaneously in split-screen. 

READ MORE: The 100 Most Anticipated Films Of 2021

The prologue is brief. The Mother (Lebrun), as she is credited – it’s a convincing small detail that this long-married couple never refers to each other by name – and the Father (Argento, performing in Italian-accented French, which gives another dimension of simple authenticity), sit outside on a little terrace and toast each other. Perhaps it’s a moment from a while ago; perhaps it is her last good day. Whatever the case, the next moment, we’re in a gracious wide overhead shot of the two of them asleep in bed in the morning, when a black strip spills down the center of the picture, suddenly sealing them off from each other, less a separation than a severing. On the right, we watch the Mother get up and distractedly make coffee in the tiny kitchen, while on the left, the Father sleeps on.

READ MORE: ‘Vortex’ First Look Clip: Gaspar Noé’s Latest Reveals A Tiny Taste Of What Dario Argento Is Doing In His Film

Even aside from the evocation of dislocation and alienation, on a purely technical level, “Vortex” is just as impressive as any of Noé’s showier entertainments. Not only must the choreography of two cameras within this small and homey apartment have been a headache, but there is throughout careful monitoring of the images in relation to each other. Noé has learned the lesson of “24” well; if you’re going to ask an audience to divide their attention this way, you have to be sure they know where to look. And so, though they unfold simultaneously and in a verité manner, while one image is busy, the other will be in repose; one will be the focus and the other merely peripheral. In its way, it’s a far more immersive technique than “Love”‘s 3D, though admittedly here we don’t see any close-up ejaculation – Noé, you coward.

READ MORE: The 25 Best Films Of 2020 You Didn’t See

As for precisely what happens: nothing and everything. The Mother, whose deteriorating mental condition is made all the more poignant by her previous career as a respected psychologist, wanders out into the street and gets lost in a neighborhood store that suddenly seems like a labyrinth. The Father – a film critic with, Europeanly, a longtime mistress – panics and tries to find her. Lebrun’s evocation of her character’s confusion and fear is brilliant with pain: she comes in and out of sense, sometimes childlike and bewildered, sometimes malicious and suspicious. It’s hard to say which state is worse.

The first time their son (Alex Lutz), a recovering addict overwhelmed by the prospect of having to become the grown-up in the relationship with his parents, comes to visit, she confusedly tries to kiss him on the mouth, then asks him to identify the strange man who keeps following her around, whom she does not recognize as her husband. And in the moment that got to me the most, during a phase of lucidity while the three of them are trying to decide what to do, the son is suggesting a care home and the father refusing, blustering, minimizing – “it will be all right, it will be all right” – the mother simply starts to apologize. Lebrun’s performance throughout is so utterly convincing as to seem practically documentary, but this moment, this helpless “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry,” is utterly pulverizing.

And beyond the excellent performances, there are times when the technique creates its own intrigue. At one point during the son’s visit, the two frames are arranged in such a way that the mother disappears entirely, entering that void between the images, being absented, erased. At other times the split-screen sets up suspense, as when the Mother methodically “tidies up” her husband’s study, tearing up his work and throwing it out, while he, oblivious, takes a shower. At still other times, it soothes: sometimes they cross into each other’s spaces, and there’s something briefly uplifting about these little moments of synchronicity, however artificial that uplift may be. 

Mostly, however, there is only one trajectory a story like this can take, and it is downward. This is by far Noé’s most somber and mature work, and also perhaps his most accessible, in the sense that such human misery is, of course, accessible to all. His previous experiments have been with outrageousness; here, aside from that possible overkill heart attack scene and an epilogue about the son’s fate which just feels too bleak, the experiment is respectful hushed, heartbroken. Doubtless, due to Noé’s own real-world experiences, “Vortex” is a success, if a dolorous one: a dignified, sometimes desperate tribute to, as the dedication reads, “all those whose minds will decompose before their hearts.” [B/B+]

Follow along with our full coverage from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival here.