Gaspar Noé’s Vortex is perhaps the most human movie he’s ever made. And yet, somehow, it’s also the cruelest. That’s saying something for a filmmaker who in the past has given us nine-minute rape scenes and close-ups of heads being bashed in with fire hydrants, not to mention the time he actually put a warning on the screen advising the audience that they had 30 seconds to leave the theater before things started to get really gruesome. Noé makes traumatizing films, to be sure. Vortex, however, doesn’t have the extravagant violence of his earlier efforts. Inspired partly by events in the director’s own life, it follows an elderly couple as they cope with frailty and dementia. The wife (played by the veteran French actress Françoise Lebrun) is a former psychologist starting to suffer from Alzheimer’s. The husband (played by legendary Italian horror director Dario Argento) is an aging film critic who is too physically frail to either help or cope with his wife’s illness.
Vortex doesn’t need crushed heads to be emotionally pulverizing. There’s an unflinching, near-clinical relentlessness to the picture, but therein lies its compassion and empathy. Noé’s protagonists don’t get a reprieve from their situation, so why should we? In an early scene, we watch the husband and wife as they lie in bed, each occupying one side of the screen. He snores peacefully. She remains wide awake, her eyes open in fear and confusion. Does she understand what’s happening to her? It’s the simplest of scenes and it’s terrifying, the kind of moment that will leave knots in a viewer’s stomach. Slowly, a line creeps down the middle of the frame, separating them into two shots. The rest of the movie unfolds in this split screen, as if to embody the increasing psychic distance between them. It’s visually striking and quite beautiful, but also profoundly unsettling.
Noé has always loved to let his cameras drift in and around his characters, to swirl and hover and pursue. But in the past, these characters had purpose and drive; they were on quests, albeit often gruesome ones. In recent years, however, the director has been looser with the camera and with his plotting, allowing his actors to improvise more. He seems content to let the unpredictable minutiae of intimate moments linger instead of charging toward spectacular, monstrous climaxes. In Vortex, this floating quality, combined with the split screen, adds to the disorientation. The wife wanders off to the market, but she isn’t actually looking for anything. As the minutes tick away, we realize she isn’t sure what she’s doing or where she is. She doesn’t speak much. Usually she mutters inaudibly or remains silent. Surely the fact that Noé has cast Lebrun, once famous for her monologues, is some sort of provocation.
The roaming, fragmented style mirrors her confusion; we too can feel the alienation in our bones. Split into two screens, each character is in their own world — even though they occupy the same cramped and well-lived-in Paris apartment filled with books and posters. Noé is himself a notorious movie-poster collector, and he lost his mother some years ago to Alzheimer’s. (The couple’s son, a recovering junkie, appears several times, and one imagines that Noé probably sees a little of himself in this man as well.) Do not mistake Vortex’s relentlessness for coldness or distance. Every second seethes with emotion of an intensely personal kind. This is a director confronting the darkest, saddest corners of his mind.
To be fair, there are moments of great onscreen tenderness in Vortex, too. Or, rather, moments of ordinary tenderness that become great because of Noé’s cinematic conceit. At one point, during a particularly anxious moment for the wife, the husband reaches over — across his frame and into hers, visually — and grabs her hand. It’s the simplest of gestures, but it takes on monumental importance within Noé’s aesthetic framework. And it has monumental importance in these lives: When even the simplest task becomes an ordeal, a hand holding your own surely feels world-changing.
Ultimately, what makes Vortex so cruel is what makes it so honest. All too often, films about such struggles try to sugarcoat their stories, to alleviate the grim (and very real) subject matter with coy evasion and elevate it through magical thinking and spiritual overtones. Noé, being Noé, goes in the opposite direction: He rubs our faces in it. Perhaps because he’s not thinking of the audience or of those left behind; he is fully on the side of the people onscreen. One final attempt to lend some hopeful spiritual meaning to this whole ordeal is shot down with almost hilarious matter-of-factness. Nobody gets to “go to a better place” in Vortex. And yet the film is sublime.
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