- Movie Rating -

Vortex (2022)

| May 4, 2022

It is always a great joy to present a four-star review to a film by a director whose work that I habitually avoid. 

That’s not an indication that Argentine director Gaspar Noé’s fails as an artist necessarily, but his content is a little difficult to stomach.  His earlier films have tended to be nihilistic, sexually violent, narratively twisted and – you might guess – quite unpleasant.  After 2002’s Irreversible, a nasty revenge thriller in which the events ran backwards and included a nine-minute rape scene and later a man whose face is beaten to hamburger with a fire extinguisher, I decided that perhaps Mr. Noé’s work was not for me.  The only film of his that I have seen since was 2019’s Climax which featured a pregnant woman being kicked in the stomach and another who has her hair lit on fire.

Needless to say, Noé is a specific taste.  His films cause an uproar at major film festivals but the generally ugly nature of his work is not without purpose.  He wants to provoke you, to push you to the limit, to make you reconsider what you typically know as far as violent and sexual content.  He wants to overturn your notion of heavily stylized and casual violence presented in most Hollywood films.  His films exist in the cold light of day.

His new film, Vortex contains no graphic physical or sexual violence, but it does yield to the cruelty of nature itself.  It is a beautifully-crafted drama which doesn’t contain any of his usual shock theater aesthetics but instead deals with the odd cruelty of time and of aging, and a haunting contemplation of death.  Slow, and very deliberate this film is in the pacing of life itself.

The film’s core is an unnamed elderly couple living in a cavernous Paris apartment packed from wall to ceiling with old books, magazines and papers that have accumulated over the years.  Cleaning up this mess would take weeks, even months.  Between the shelves packed with artifacts from their lives are posters of their idealistic youth – they were twenty-sometimes of the sixties and we feel that bygone age in their living space.

The couple is credited only as He and She.  The woman is played by 77-Year-old veteran actress Françoise Lebrun and the man is played by legendary Italian horror director Dario Argento who is 81.  Early on, we share a lovely moment as they have a wine toast on their patio balcony, but soon we settle into the drama in which She begins showing outward signs of dementia.  Noé employs a very effective split screen that divides the couple into their varying perspectives and it is used most effectively in the opening as He gets to work on a book about the dream-state of cinema and She takes out the trash, walks out into the street and becomes lost in a confusing series of sidewalks and shops.  Clearly she is lost and has no hope of finding her way home, and far too much time passes before He realizes that she is gone.

The meat of the story focuses on what they plan to do about this situation.  She is not going to get better, but her memory is fading and something must be done and soon.  He brings in their son Stéphane (Alex Lutz) to work out a solution.  The son suggests a monitored apartment where both of them can get the help that they need.  And yet, we’ve spent time in their home and we understand the father’s objections when he states that leaving the place that they’ve called home for over half a century would be impossible.  We can feel that.  Up to that point, we have spent a great deal of time in their home and we see how they live, we understand their space.  Leaving is not an option.

But the story isn’t really the point.  Much of the film is just observation.  Often she busies herself with dishes or with television and then stands up and wanders around the apartment, seemingly to get her bearings.  The passage of time is a constant mystery to a person going through dementia.  How much time has passed?  What day is it?  We can see in this woman’s eyes that she understands the gravity of her situation.  That she knows that her mind is slipping and we can see that her confusion is real.  Lebrun isn’t given a lot of dialogue save for a few lines which are spoken in nearly-silent whispers.  It’s a very good physical performance.

Argento, in his first lead acting role, has the more showy part, a man who deeply loves his wife although we sense a bit of narcissism – he’s been a writer and critic for years and he’s working on a book about the correlation of dreams and films.  He loves his wife, but she’s slipping away from him, and we learn far too early in the film that she’s not the only love of his life.

Noé apparently based the film on his experiences dealing with his mother Nora who had dementia and conceived of the idea after he himself was found to have a brain tumor in 2020.  You can sense a director here who is much calmer, much more willing to bring his work in first gear.  He wants us to understand the long and sometimes labored experience of being elderly, that it isn’t always dramatic consequence, that sometimes it is long hours that flow into each other with nothing happening.  Noé doesn’t fuel inject their lives with crisis and circumstance but with quiet spaces.  It reminds me of what the late critic Gene Siskel said, that “Old age doesn’t have a soundtrack, except quiet and loneliness.”  And this film captures that perfectly.  This is the most humane film that Noé has ever made and he proves himself the master of calm and quiet in the same way that his earlier films showed him to be the master of controlled chaos.

Some will find the film a bit difficult since much of it is simply observation.  There are at least four extended scenes of Lebrun just wandering around her apartment, but you never sense that Noé is messing with you.  He wants you to understand this woman’s headspace and how confused and disoriented she has become.  Those who work through the film’s 142 minute running-time are rewarded with an ending that is both hopeful, technically brilliant and deeply felt.  This is one of the best films of the year.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2022) Filed in: Foreign