Directed & Written by Gaspar Noé
Starring Dario Argento, Françoise Lebrun, & Alex Lutz.
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Vortex is the most accessible film Gaspar Noé has made in terms of story, though it’s nothing short of devastating. Every film Noé has made carries transgressive qualities and Vortex is no different. This time, Noé focuses on the end stages of life and how ageing, as well as illnesses like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, can turn us into haunted houses, ghosts of ourselves and our lives trapped within the still-living vessel of our flesh and blood.
Noé’s film follows an elderly couple, Lui (Dario Argento) and Elle (Françoise Lebrun), as they cope with his ailing physical health and her deteriorating mental health. We spend a lot of time getting to know the daily routines of Lui and Elle. They’re visited occasionally by their son Stéphane (Alex Lutz), who’s got his own issues, too. Eventually we see that Lui and Elle, despite spending many years together and living together, live a married life but also live almost separate individual lives, disconnected because of all the uncertainty that’s crowded their lives. Although Lui and Elle remain connected by the spectre of death hovering over them in their twilight years that could come at any time.As always, Noé is playing with form right from the very moment the opening credits begin. He includes the birth dates, by year, of the two leads, Argento and Lebrun, as well as himself, next to the credits; the dates are revisited again later for both the actors, as if they’ve actually crawled into the skin of their characters and passed away by the end of the film. Likewise, a card at the beginning focuses on life and death with Noé dedicating the story to “all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” This card further sets Vortex up as a deeply Gothic story in the most early literary sense of the word, combining death with a little slice of romanticism. The audience expects already that this is a story about ageing and death, but it’s also about love, in its many forms. The Gothic is bridged definitively in Vortex through a mention of Edgar Allan Poe and part of a line from his poem “A Dream Within a Dream” that seems to drive Lui, when Elle mentions that life is “a dream” and Lui replies: “A dream within a dream.”
Lui and Elle sleep in the same bed, but then we watch them spend the entire day and night all but entirely separated, living life in parallel only insofar as they remain husband and wife. This is also where the split-screen technique Noé uses becomes especially relevant, giving us a glimpse into each of their disconnected lives. Even when Lui and Elle are in the same room, for instance when their son is visiting, they still feel like they’re alienated from one another, stuck perpetually at a distance. The effectiveness of the split-screen usage reaches its haunting climax in a scene when Lui collapses on the floor, nearly dying, all the while Elle is totally unaware of what’s happening.
Yet the split-screen disconnection between Lui and Elle means more than just showing both of them in their semi-isolated worlds, it’s a way for Noé to use form in order to explore memories and perspective, which ties into the work Lui is doing with his new book. The split-screen technique becomes a way of looking at how film itself can be viewed as a parallel to memory and how a particular perspective, especially changing perspective, frames our memories and the stories of our lives. This is why we sometimes see Noé switching perspectives of the couple, changing their position on the screen from one side to the other, and we also later get Stéphane’s perspective included in the mix.
At one point a radio discussion is heard in the background of the film, as people discuss the past and our memories, how we remember things. It leads us to the question of what happens when one person can’t remember the memories they shared with their significant other, and this is the scenario playing out tragically in Lui’s personal world. We discover Lui has a mistress, giving the audience their own perspective, outside the other characters, implicating viewers in the whole experience. Lui still loves his wife, and we see him act very tenderly towards Elle in several sweet moments, but, through the shifting perspectives, we start to wonder if due to Elle’s condition he might feel lost and lonely, adrift in a sea of memories which Elle can no longer access, and needing an anchor to keep him from floating away into the ether, too.
In one scene, Lui adamantly refuses to get rid of some of his things to potentially move to a smaller place, telling his son: “I don‘t throw away my past.” Through the perspectives Noé offers of Lui, the viewer starts to see that Lui may find comfort in a mistress with whom he can make new memories that the both of them can remember; a sad but painfully realistic piece of Vortex‘s Gothic tapestry. It also returns to the use of Poe in a deeply melancholy way, the idea that maybe everything is just a dream, that maybe our memories are not even real if they’re so easily forgotten, and maybe that’s why Lui clings to the past through the things he keeps as the only tangible pieces of his life that still exist outside of memory.
Early in the film, “the violent, brutal wound caused by death” is mentioned, which is where the film takes us in the end, as Elle kills herself not long after her husband Lui succumbs to ill health following a cardiac event. Herein lies the Gothic romance at the core of Vortex because we see the lingering love in Elle particularly, in spite of her deteriorating mind, when she seems to die of the proverbial broken heart, incapable of going on much longer once the love of her life is gone.
Noé also gives an appropriate end to his exploration of form when it comes to the split-screen technique and the concept of perspective. When Lui and Elle die, their screens fade into nothingness. They become corpses with no perception, no perspective, only perceived by others forever in memory.
At the close of the film, Stéphane is left to eulogise both of his parents. He reminisces on how he had to “play parent” to his own mother and father at the end of their lives. This touches on a tragic and inevitable part of our lives, highlighting the strange cycle of human life that takes us from infants, when we relied on our parents to care for us, to old age when we become like infants again in a way needing to be cared for like at the beginning of our lives, many times by our own children.
While a gloomy Gothicism sits atop Vortex, there’s also a beauty in the way Noé depicts the cycle of life returning to an elderly infancy, as it brings out the qualities of love tenfold. Stéphane is there for his parents, in spite of his own issues in life, and he expresses his love through being there for his parents when their minds and their bodies are breaking down. So, although Vortex is a melancholy tale about the Gothic end-stages of life, it’s just as much a celebration of the loving glue that holds people together when death touches our lives.