Grimly powerful and powerfully grim, Vortex is the story of a longtime married French couple on the final lap of the track. Elle and Lui, Gaspar Noé’s film calls them, Her and Him, universalising the particularity of what happens to the characters played by Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento, a first lead role in front of the camera for the 80-ish-year-old director.
It’s appropriate that Argento is known for horror because in its own domestic downbeat beat way this is a horror film, the sort of one we’ll all one day get to take a leading role, if we’re “lucky” enough to get that far.
As in the recent Lux Aeterna, Noë does it all with a split screen, the better to contrast him and her. These two people are in the same place, their own apartment, but not in the same space. She has dementia, and spends the days either bewildered or resigned or angry. In the other half of the screen, he’s had heart trouble but his life continues much as it has done – he makes phone calls, he writes his book, he has whispered conversations with his mistress, who wants to dump him. And often he worries about Elle, who is likely to wander off into the inner-city suburb where they live, or leave the gas on, or unwittingly do something else disastrous. And together the two of them potter on, wondering how long they can put off the day when they’ll have to leave this small, cluttered dwelling and go into a care home.
The overlap with Michael Haneke’s Amour is obvious, and Vortex does cover much of the same ground, but Noé’s take is more grindingly pitiless. He had his own brush with death – a brain haemmorrhage – a year before making this film and also had to deal with his own mother’s descent into dementia. Lebrun’s performance is full of little authentic tells – the way Elle suddenly snaps back into lucidity, her occasional appalled reaction at her own decline – and Argento also brings the first-hand experience of a man in his 80s to his portrayal of a loving husband whose despair bubbles over occasionally into anger. Heart-rending performances but gripping ones – both these characters are determined to keep going and pity is not on the agenda.
In Amour the well-appointed apartment where its two protagonists lived – airy, spacious, bourgeois – seemed to taunt the couple as they lost their grip. Here’s the life you used to lead, it said. In Vortex the apartment is crammed with a lifetime’s stuff, the accummulations of two people who have led fulfilling bookish lives. This apartment doesn’t so much taunt as conspire against the couple – every pile of books a trap, every cluttered surface another surface that can’t be used for something else. This place is hard to live in for the well and healthy, never mind the old and struggling, and Noé’s nimble director of photographer Benoît Debie shoots it as he finds it – when it goes dark he doesn’t rebalance the apartment’s lights back to white but leaves them glowing orange, the better to suggest this couple’s claustrophobic situation and lack of control. They live in a warren.
A little sub-theme is the medicalisation of life and death, slightly intrusive, this. Their son (Alex Lutz) is a recovering junkie who still likes to chase the dragon now and again, a ponderous touch in a film that could do with some levity, maybe, though if there’s one thing you can say about Noé it’s that once he’s decided what he’s aiming at – see Irreversible, or Enter the Void, or Love for details – he goes all in. Do he and Lars Von Trier send each other Christmas cards?
Noé starts it off with the lightest of opening scenes – him and her having a spot of lunch on their small balcony, toasting each other with a glass of wine. After that a clip of a young, beautiful and dewy-skinned Françoise Hardy singing a song in an archive clip about youth and age and how quickly one follows the other. And then the plummet. Brace yourselves.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022