In ‘Vortex,’ a Provocative Director Explores the Horrors of Old Age squib
Gaspar Noé is a renowned conductor of nightmares, and with Vortex, he takes a deep dive into realistic trauma and terror. The story of an elderly French couple battling burgeoning dementia, Vortex is something of a left turn for the Irreversible and Climax auteur, patiently charting its protagonists as they navigate harrowing final days full of confusion, fear, frustration, and mounting peril. Far less flashy and in your face than much of his prior work, Noé’s latest remains a formally bold and distinctive drama, employing a meticulous aesthetic design and two superb lead performances to craft a chilling portrait of the end times.
Given its subject matter (and its director’s mordant sense of humor), it’s fitting that Vortex begins with its concluding credits, as well as a dedication: “To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” His protagonists—an unnamed couple played by legendary Italian horror director Dario Argento and actress Françoise Lebrun—are part of that group. He’s a long-time film critic and she’s a psychiatrist, the two residing in the flat that they’ve called home for decades. Following a shot-countershot sequence of the pair looking at each other from opposite windows, and then sharing a glass of wine and some food at a courtyard table—during which she remarks, “Life’s a dream, isn’t it?” and he responds, “A dream within a dream”—the film picks up with them in bed, where Lebrun’s wife awakens and, as she does, the frame literally separates into two equal square quadrants, thus creating a split-screen design that will be maintained for the remainder of this 142-minute affair.
Vortex’s bifurcated visual schema is Noé’s means of highlighting Argento and Lebrun’s escalating disconnection, a notion exacerbated by numerous instances in which the juxtaposed two are seen facing or moving in different directions. Since they continue to live together, this estrangement isn’t physical but mental, brought about by Lebrun’s dementia. That condition isn’t initially apparent as Lebrun goes about her morning routine of lighting the stove for her husband’s coffee, and as they pass each other while walking to and fro in their residence—all of this set to the sound of a radio broadcast about the grieving process. Yet it doesn’t take long for it to manifest itself, with Lebrun venturing outside to drop a bag of trash in the dumpster and wandering aimlessly through various nearby stores, the look of mystification on her face speaking volumes about the fog now enveloping her mind.