Vortex: Gaspar Noé divides and punctures a couple in their dotage

The unflagging showman-auteur wields a split screen to track Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun’s fading couple as they approach oblivion. But is this unsparing scrutiny tendresse or artsploitation?

Françoise Lebrun as ‘Elle’ and Dario Argento as ‘Lui’ in Vortex (2021)

► Vortex is in UK cinemas from 13 May.

More than a mere auteur, Gaspar Noé is an auteur de force: the capo, if you and Jacques Rivette will forgive me, of the tracking shot. In a crowded modern field of directors who use their skills to brutalise audiences, Noé stands apart from – if not above – the madding crowd: like Lars Von Trier, another frequent Cannes competitor, Noé has successfully fused the practice of shock tactics and the aura of art.

The upshot of this sorcery is twofold. Firstly (and happily for his financiers), Noé is guaranteed a large if brazenly self-selecting audience of sensation-hungry cinephiles right out of the gate. Secondly, the negative press he gets usually ends up working in his favour. For every scandalised viewer who walks out of one of Gaspar’s at-your-own-risk festival screenings, another fan gets cosier: entry to the void as a badge of honour. Back in 2002, the temporal gamesmanship and obscenely realistic violence of Irreversible may have looked to some like a fleeting, opportunistic provocation. Twenty years later, it’s clear that the director is in it for the long haul.

“Time destroys everything,” Irreversible warned us, and the grim, grisly nature of longevity itself is one of several subtexts waiting to be mined from Noé’s latest, Vortex, which observes the final days of two elderly, long-married Parisians waiting around till death do them part. At this point, comparisons to Michael Haneke’s nearly identically themed, Palme d’Or-winning drama Amour (2012) are de rigueur, but as Noé told the New York Times, “Haneke didn’t invent senility.” It’s more like every enfant terrible eventually lives to confront their own mortality, and after the cathartic rave-up of Climax (2018) – a movie about youth as a reckless fugue state – Noé has made his version of an old man’s movie. Created in the aftermath of the director’s own near-death experience – and a convalescence spent mainlining Mizoguchi movies in bed – Vortex bears a dedication to “those whose brains decompose before their bodies do”, but there’s no Cartesian split in Noé’s approach, which chronicles mental and physical deterioration alike in excruciating intervals.

Argento, Alex Lutz as Stéphane and Lebrun in Vortex

There is, however, a literal fissure slicing through Vortex, a perpetual split-screen effect that harks back to Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s Chelsea Girls (1966) and compartmentalises our identification with the two protagonists, played by the director Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun (The Mother and the Whore, 1973). He is lucid but hobbled by a heart condition; she is a former physician suffering from rapidly worsening dementia. They begin the film side by side in bed, in what looks like a two-shot before the frame separates and slots them into their disparate but relentlessly intersecting trajectories. Argento’s character is a film critic working on a book about the relationship of cinema and dreams; his dialogue on the subject – mostly delivered into the telephone in static shots juxtaposed with the aimless wanderings, through the couple’s cramped apartment and then through the outside world, of his near-catatonic wife – serves as in-our-face annotation of Noé’s gambit. Noé is out to suture us into a waking nightmare whose terror lies not in the presence of the fantastic or the uncanny, but rather its existential abjection: body horror shorn of spectacle or metaphor.

What Vortex means to do, in real time and via an ostentatious – and extremely impressive – display of filmmaking skill, is confront its audience with a meticulously deglamorised depiction of later-life decay, and in doing so, wrestle with (though surely not defeat) our anxieties about the process. The question of why the filmmaker is using a pair of cinematic icons as his chosen vessels is worth asking; but whether it’s a matter of personal preference or a symbolic stunt-casting (like the wizened nouvelle vague survivors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in Amour), Argento and Lebrun give remarkable performances, evincing a range of frailties, pride and stubbornness among them. They deserve credit not just for their acting but for the agility required to keep up with Noé’s relentless dual-camera choreography, which represents the new apex of his collaboration with cinematographer Benoît Debie.

Lebrun with Alex Lutz as Stéphane in Vortex

For viewers who are inherently receptive to Noé’s ongoing project of strenuous aesthetic flexing, Vortex will surely look like another triumph. For the rest of us, though, its undeniable, visceral effectiveness – to say nothing of its ostensibly tender emotional affect – is occasion for scepticism. Showmanship is in Noé’s bones, and there’s a case to be made that such virtuosity is, in this context, grotesque, that all the visuals really amount to here is a tony form of artsploitation, of human weakness weaponised against spectators who can’t help identifying with and suffer the pain being foisted on them.

More generously, if one can grant the possibility that a long-time bad boy is working in good faith, Vortex becomes a compelling referendum on its maker’s gifts and limitations, and in a film that keeps emphasising the pitiless, intimate omniscience of its own gaze, there are enough grace notes to suggest some kind of redemption. In a gruelling extended sequence somewhere around the midpoint, Argento and Lebrun have lunch with their adult son (Alex Lutz), a drug addict whose own son Kiki regards his grandparents with a mix of love, bewilderment and obliviousness; a shot of him and Lebrun peacefully watering flowers on the balcony skirts cliché but pushes through the other end as the sort of gentle, elemental image that childhood memories are made of. Kiki, we think, will probably hold on to this moment for a long time, while for his grandmother it’s already gone.

The boy returns later, during an epilogue suffused by a methodical melancholy and containing probably the best dialogue exchange in any of Noé’s films – a short, devastating clarification from parent to child about the difference between an empty space and a home. For better and for worse, Noé is a filmmaker of sensory overload; here, at the end of his most restrained movie, he makes something moving out of absence itself.

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