When you hear that Gaspar Noé is working with Dario Argento, it makes a lot of sense. Too purveyors of stylised extremity coming together, and Argento existing as a clear influence on Noé, the combination creates certain expectations (especially after Noé’s previous film, Climax (2018), a descent into a neon hell full of transgressive content, a work clearly indebted to Argento). Yet, Vortex is a real departure for Noé; where previous films would be easily described as provocative (gimicky, certainly), exploitative and outrageous, this is mature and restrained. It is a work of real feeling and depth, one that is noticeable Noé but channelled in a different direction.
The Argento casting is purposeful, though. Noé certainly recognises the connection between Argento and himself and casts him for this reason. Vortex is named as such to evoke the spiral towards death, a sense of decay and doom that hangs over this harrowing portrait of old age, and specifically dementia. The impetus came from Noé’s own experiences with this, witnessing close family members battle with dementia and having a serious health scare himself. The agent-provocateur, one of the bad boys of cinema that has continued making films about youth, drugs, sex and violence, has had to grapple with mortality (and we see that in this film). Dario Argento is a projection forwards, he plays an unnamed cinephile living in a house full of books on film, film posters and physical copies of movies. He is writing a book about cinema and dreams, how one evokes the other: how every film is about dreaming, how the act of watching a film is an act of dreaming (or a synonymous experience).
Of course, this makes the viewer apply these thoughts to the film, especially as it opens with a happy couple, Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun, talking about how life is so satisfying that it’s a dream, in fact, a dream within a dream. It is easy to say that Noé takes this and turns it into a nightmare, but it is more that the film plays out with a sustained sense of unreality, something that only highlights its sheer reality. Lebrun’s role for the rest of the film is to convey somebody degenerating due to dementia, and all the subtleties that come with that. This, therefore, presents a loss of reality and a loss of self. The security of real life is overtaken by a fuzzy logic that is more akin to dream. The syncopated rhythms point out the frailty of reality and how a sense of unreality can consume our lives. On another level, this is a dream of Noé, as in traumatic dream showcasing his fears for the future. Argento is him, an extrapolation of him surrounded by cinematic ephemera, holding onto his relevance and contributions while old age pushes against him, and while others fade away around him.
All of this is portrayed with unflinching reality. The performances feel cut out from reality, Lebrun giving one of the most stunning and devastating turns you’ll ever see. Simple moments establish her brilliance, including a moment early on which is just the way her eyes light up when she looks at a bouquet of flowers. It feels beyond performance, never a crude imitation. This anchors such emotion and impact, and is the heart of the film. We are used to Noé pushing things in our face (sometimes pretty literally, like in Love (2015)), now he is just letting things happen. This is his most horrifying work because its horrors are so deeply human, and unfurl so naturally. It is a precise and brilliantly directed work, but the craft takes a relative backseat, with humanity taking centre stage. Again, it is mature filmmaking and, for maybe the first time for Noé, impressively restrained.
There is one overt stylistic choice, though, an element that separates this from wider cinema. Very early on, the frame splits in two and the rest of the film exists in split-screen, with each half of the frame being independently filmed and capturing a different character. Images overlap but never fit together, it is a striking look and one that could so easily feel like a gimmick. It is, however, inspired and really lifts the film up. Again, the film is conveying existence as dreamlike, as bizarrely unreal. This also means it is isolating, the framing choice perfectly showing this. For most of the film, one half of the screen is Argento (doing whatever their character is doing) and the other half is Lebrun (doing whatever their character is doing). They may be interacting; they may be doing completely different things. It doesn’t matter, they are still inexorably separated. This shows the isolating experience that is dealing with illness and age. Lebrun’s character’s condition has drawn a line in their lives that they have to deal with: Noé literalises this divide and the result is truly affecting. It also forces the viewer to make conscious choices, prioritising one side over the other and never being able to take it all in. You will miss things, you will lose things. Even the act of watching the film involves choice and consequence.
The success is also down to Noé keeping things simple inside of this complex setup. The cameras follow the characters around and watch them in long takes. It doesn’t feel like affectation, it is two windows into realities, realities that can never quite fit together. It is a scarce film, without intrusive soundtrack and limited to very few locations. This makes it all the more harrowing and isolating, a well thought out work in which the emotion drawn out of the audience is very earned. This is not to say the film is without fault. There are certainly a few moments that remind you of Noé’s lesser works, of his shallower stylisations or impulses. We do have a third main character, the son. This character also lines up with Noé, mostly because he feels like he has come out of an earlier Noé film. For the most part, he’s a great addition. His presence creates a foil that highlights elements that would otherwise stay hidden, and it does create a satisfying layer that feels like the Gaspar Noé that was colliding with the Gaspar Noé that is. The way the son oddly intersects with the rest of the drama, and has to deal with a situation so alien to them, has a meta resonance that is powerful. But, there are also moments that fall flat, little regressions into older Noé tropes that diminish the wider maturity.
There are a few moments like this, mostly to do with when a need to narrativise what’s on screen, as opposed to just present life, leads to contrivance or overreaching. A couple of side plot threads just feel extraneous. The length of the film adds to its weight, it needs to feel long, it needs to feel like you’ve gone through something. The ways in which it uses its length are just not always the most conducive. There is also a moment (arguably two) at the end that reminded me of how much I’ve often disliked the way Noé makes movies. These are moments that feel especially jarring as the rest of the film is him channelling his style in the most fulfilling way yet. But this means most of it works. And it means the film is excellent, it truly is. This is a work of profundity and real emotion. It presents things with a rawness and adds enough cinematic craft to become more broadly philosophical and artistic. It isn’t just grief-porn, it is an honest and effective work that deftly explores resonant ideas.