Gaspar Noe’s ‘Vortex’ – An Unflinching Descent into Oblivion

This movie starts off simply enough with an elderly couple outside of their apartment in northeast Paris, having what looks like lunch and some wine as they are enjoying the long life they have had together. The wife then asks her husband, “is life a dream?” He responds, “life is a dream within a dream.” Seeing these two together in such a simple setting spoke to me of a couple who have lived what looks like a very successful life. It also proves to be the happiest scene this movie has to offer.

Vortex” is the latest piece of cinema from Gaspar Noe, a filmmaker I very much admire and have no problem nor hesitation in defending. This particular movie is his most mature one to date, but do not for one second think he has lost a single ounce of his audaciousness here. With “Vortex,” he takes us on a cinematic journey which I can best describe as being unflinching as we follow this couple as their mental and physical health are on a permanent downward slope. Gaspar begins this movie with a dedication which states: “To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” This is then followed by Françoise Hardy singing “Mon Amie La Rose,” a song about going from life to death. Suffice to say, you know from there that this movie will not have a happy ending, and there is no music score from Thomas Bangalter to elevate us out of the bleakness on display.

With “Vortex,” Gaspar goes out of his way to utilize the split screen approach, which Brian DePalma used to great effect in his movies, and a line is slowly drawn down between these two characters to where their existence together will never be the same. They go about their daily activities in what seems like the usual mundane way as the husband works on a book he calls “Psyche” which deals with movies and dreams, and the wife goes shopping at local stores near Stalingrad Station where they live. But as she travels through the aisles of one store, we see on her face how lost she is to where it quickly become clear she has no idea where she is at. Keep in mind, this is just the start of the story. We have yet to see how truly bad things will get.

As for the husband, the work on his book is constantly being undermined by his wife’s deteriorating condition which shows itself in the most horrifying of ways. In addition, he is suffering health problems of his own as his heart condition has him checking his blood pressure every other day. Their only hope is the help they get from their son, Stéphane (Alex Lutz, playing one of the few characters here with an actual name), but he can only deal with so much as he has problems of his own which includes raising his son, Kiki (Kylian Dheret), and recovering from his mental breakdown and a drug addiction which threatens to overtake him in the face of inevitable mortality.

We know Dario Argento best for being one of the best horror filmmakers ever which such classics as “Suspiria,” “Deep Red” and “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” among others. As for Françoise Lebrun, she is a highly acclaimed French actress who has appeared in a plethora of movies, most notably in Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore.” Together, these two do not act their roles as much as they inhabit them. With the split screen setup, this makes perfect sense as every single moment in this couple’s time together counts for everything. Even the most mundane of details carries a lot of meaning as these two experience a deterioration neither is prepared to accept or fully deal with.

I also have to give Alex Lutz a lot of credit as well. Not only does he inhabit his role alongside Argento and Lebrun, but he never overacts in the slightest as his character of Stéphane has to carry the weight of his parents’ mental and physical demise all on his shoulders, and anyone who has been through a similar situation can certainly relate. Still, the scene where he relapses without even knowing his son is watching him freebase proves to be quite devastating.

With “Vortex,” Gaspar is not out to pass judgment on these two characters or those around them. Instead, he makes us follow them are inevitable journey to death which we know is coming. Is it cruel of him to do this? No, not really as we have a certain denial when it comes to the finality of life. We know it is coming, but who is prepared to deal with it? While we say we will be there for our loved ones when they breathe their final breath, who exactly looks forward to that?

Watching this movie, I was reminded of some dialogue from one my favorite television shows, let alone one of my favorite HBO shows, “Oz:”

“Let me tell you, dying is a lot harder on the living than it is on the dead. Death really only hurts those left behind.”

“Do we care for people when they’re sick because we actually care about them? Or do we care for them because when our time comes, we want someone to care for us?”

“The state’s attitude to the elderly, any elderly, in or out of prison is… hurry up and die.”

With “Vortex,” Gaspar is not out to suggest any course of action, but to instead offer us an unflinching look at a couple’s last moments before they expire. Even if I felt the urge, I could never look away from the screen as these two individuals breathed their last breaths. Now while it might sound like I am spoiling this film for you, I am not. Some films you watch to enjoy, and others are meant to be experienced. “Vortex,” like all of Gaspar’s films, is meant to be experienced more than anything else, and I applaud it for that.

I would also like to add how “Vortex” makes me want to look at my parents and tell them the following:

“If you ever get dementia, I will kill you. You understand?”

Filmmaker Lars Von Trier was once quoted as saying the following:

“A film should be like a rock in the shoe.”

That is certainly the case with “Vortex.” This is not the first Gaspar Noe film to give you this feeling, and it certainly will not be the last.

* * * * out of * * * *

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