Vortex: Chronicle of a Death Foretold
The story behind the latest film of French cinema’s most terrible enfant, Gaspar Noé, goes a little bit like this: at the end of 2019 (on the 29th of December, to be precise), the director suddenly had a brain hemorrhage. His chances of survival were 50/50. Fate flipped its coin, which landed right side up – however, right around the time that he was discharged from the hospital, the COVID-19 pandemic kicked in. Inspired by the empty streets of Paris, his experience in handling his sick, elderly parents, and his fear that he might have suffered brain damage, Noé used an invitation to write a project that could be shot during lockdown to pen a sketch of the script of what was to become Vortex, a psychological drama which focuses on the last few months in the lives of a couple of elderly French intellectuals, performed by Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun.
I often find that biographism constitutes a highly speculative method, yet, on the other hand, given that the filmmaker himself applies it in the interviews that followed the film’s festival rounds and successive worldwide distributions, I won’t shy away from it here. So, is this the archetypal case where a near-death experience makes one who built his cinematic edifice on his visceral, often shocking depictions of drug addiction, violence (both physical and sexual), nervous breakdowns, and of lost loves, lost lives? Well, it sure seems like the answer is yes.
But that doesn’t mean that Vortex marks a total reset of the filmmaker: the film is abundant in the formal artifices that particularized its author within the larger Nouvelle Extremite movement – some more or less recent within his larger body of work. Just like in his recent medium-length,j Lux Æterna (2019), the screen is split into two, a la Paul Morrisey & Warhol, but works in different ways than in this previous entry, where the choice was a formal artifice that reinforced its discursive elements regarding meta-cinema. Here, the split-screen functions as a visual metaphor for how dementia effectively fractures the lives of the main characters, amplified by the fact that the frames are shot from distinctive angles, sometimes with very few degrees of variation in angle (and which were shot on separate days, often in long single shots, thus requiring a strict choreography, which Noé explains in an interview for Filmmaker Magazine). On the other hand, the first few shots of the film are framed in widescreen – which slowly splits into two across the duration of a long single shot which immediately succeeds the introduction, resulting in two academy format channels; all of these frames have rounded corners, suggesting film slides, thus toying with the concept of memory.
At the same time, in what is an apt choice for a film on death, the film begins with its end credits – and after all, Noé was always a director who experimented with the tropes of utilitarian texts in cinema; like in his infamous warning in Seul contre tous, where spectators were given a countdown timer to exit the cinema before a particularly disturbing scene. What comes as a true formal surprise is, rather, how the film sets a motto for itself: rather than displaying the text on-screen, it integrally cites the music video to Françoise Hardy’s „Mon Amie, La Rose”, where she appears in an extreme close-up, staring directly into the camera – it’s a hook that is both a thematic (the chanson discusses the inevitability of death) and temporal (the song presumably is released around the time the main characters are in their early twenties). And, to be quite fair, it’s also refreshing to finally hear a song by Hardy other than Tous les garcons et le filles sau Le temps de l’amour on the soundtrack of a film.
But let us arrive to the main plotline: as mentioned before, the film shows the last month in the life of him (performed by giallo grandmaster Dario Argento) and her (Françoise Lebrun, of La Mamain et le putain fame), a film critic and an ex-psychiatrist whose life is turned upside down after the woman falls ill with senile dementia. Their son, Stéphane (Alex Lutz), cannot be of much help, either, as he is a recovering drug addict and a divorcee – his father’s stubborn refusal towards any form of support doesn’t make things better, either, as his mother’s moments of lucidity become increasingly rare. Lebrun’s performance of her is quite possibly the film’s masterstroke: the long shots in which we observe how she loses awareness of her surroundings and of whatever she was doing, stuck doing useless tasks, offer a brutally honest and pragmatic perspective on dementia and the loss of mental capacity; all the more so given the fact that the appartment where the plot is largely set is chock-full with books (there’s a bookcase even in one of the toilets!) and of political posters from the sixties (displaying, amongst others, slogans from the pro-choice legalization movement). Noé lays out all the parameters of the situation slowly and deliberately, using subtle plot twists (another one of his signature automatisms) which are boosted by an overall oneiric sense, modulated from the dreamy to the nightmarish: the old critic is working on a book about the connection between cinema and dreams (for which he revisits the famous burial scene in Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr), various shows on natural phenomena and mental health are heard off-screen.
Ultimately, the film can be compared both to Noé’s previous body of work – these are his first elderly protagonists since 1998’s Seul Contre Tous, and can be seen as a reverse-coin to his 2015 cult hit, Love – but also, especially from a thematic point of view, with Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), which the filmmaker cites as an explicit influence. In contrast to his Austrian colleague (himself the author of a handful of viciously violent films), Noé seemingly gets muddled up in mannerism: the film comes across as deeply schematic (for example, in its oft-hamfisted references to the history of cinema), even overall artificial, and his insistence on the surface-level of events rarely begs for empathy towards any other character than Lebrun’s.
At the same time, I cannot help but notice that the premises of both films start from the (mental, cerebral) illness of the women in the narrative, with a strong emphasis both on their incapacity/incapacitation, but also on their elderly spouses’ efforts to care of them – and I see that more often than not, women are those represented as ill (see Julianne Moore’s performance in Still Alice, 2014) when, in reality, although women are indeed more likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, it’s just as true that the vast majority of carers for people with these illnesses are female. Women losing their minds: a symbol that doesn’t fly over my head – obviously, a much more romanticized position of the woman than that of a caregiver, whose gendered work within a patriarchal society is considered negligible quantity; like in the case of other exceptionalist tropes (like „The Magical Negro”), the senile woman must be postured as having been an intellectual in her “previous” life, whose matter is but an anecdote within the fiber of the film, precisely to create a contrast – precisely what makes me feel that this whole construction smells kind of funny.
Maybe the best words that can describe my feelings towards the film belong to Emil Vasilache, who wrote the following in 2019, in his ample essay (fatefully) titled „Should we bury Gaspar Noé?”: „[he] comes, at last, with a film onto which he writes in sprawling letters what his films had whispered under his breath this entire time: «BIRTH AND DEATH ARE TWO INCREDIBLE EXPERIENCES. LIFE IS BUT FLEETING JOY.» But maybe the words should say «I AM AN ICONIC DIRECTOR, I’VE GROWN OLD AND I JUST DON’T CARE ANYMORE.»” Or maybe he does finally care – but there’s something artificial, schematic, and somewhat forced in the way the author performs his care towards the characters and how he maps it out within the narrative; the train of non-cynical cinema is not late to Noe’s station: instead, it’s already long gone.
Vortex will open in Romanian cinemas on the 9th of September and is distributed by Independența Film.
Dario Argento, Françoise Lebrun, Alex Lutz
Franța / Belgia / Monaco