Gaspar Noé has always been a challenging filmmaker.
He pushes boundaries with both subject matter and his filmmaking style. Whether it’s Enter the Void, where the entire film is shot POV, Irreversible, where the film is told backward, or Climax, where it starts off with a series of interviews leading into a music video with one long take, Gaspar Noé always dedicates himself to being as daring as the themes he explores. Vortex is no exception; it’s a brilliant, powerful film. But unlike Noé’s other works, Vortex isn’t necessarily harsh. It’s touching, empathetic while simultaneously being his most horrific film to date.
Vortex follows a nameless elderly couple (played by Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun), as the wife is slowly succumbing to dementia. The film is shot in a slice-of-life style, without a traditional structure, just watching the couple go about their day. They’re immediately depicted as charming and loving, with chemistry showing having lived a full life together, without exposition. Right after we’re introduced to the couple, the film’s cinematography slowly shifts to a split-screen with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Gaspar Noé, cinematically, splits up the couple. Split-screen has been used sparingly in film, primarily associated with the work of Brian De Palma to build tension or showcase the full scope of a scene. Noé uses split-screen in the most breathtaking manner I’ve ever seen; to show isolation. You’re forced to see this couple torn apart, drifting away from each other due to dementia consuming the wife. Their daily life feels off like their natural connection is missing. The cinematography is also reminiscent of old film stock, making their lives feel all the more fleeting. The fluid, almost unnoticeable time jumps make their moments together feel tragically short, as their lives solemnly get torn apart.
Rather than lean on Noé’s direction, Vortex also excels through the stunning performances of the two leads. Dario Argento, primarily known as a legendary giallo director, gives an impactful performance as the husband. He feels like a man who’s used to living a stimulating, independent, and confident life. His powerlessness to help his wife is hurtful to behold, especially as he starts to lose his faculties just through natural aging. Françoise Lebrun delivers a heartwrenching performance as Argento’s wife, subtly selling her mental state slowly fading away. Her confusion and abject terror at no longer recognizing her environment left me breathless. As the split-screen takes hold, you see Lebrun’s face frozen in cloistered horror, as even she knows her life, her very humanity, is crumbling to the ground.
Vortex is a melancholic nightmare of a film. Gaspar Noé transports you into a relationship, into a world, falling apart. Much like Argento’s character, you’re forced to watch helplessly as the lives of this couple come to an end. Through this heartbreaking experience, the fleeting moments of warmth feel like an oasis of beauty. Vortex is a tragic horror film brimming with humanity and empathy, though you’d best prepare as you’re swallowed in this harrowing nightmare.
Vortex is still in it’s festival run, having recently played at Beyond Fest, and will next be playing at Film Festival Gent from October 19-23rd