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 * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Gaspar Noe on ‘Love 3-D’

I have been a big fan of Argentine filmmaker Gaspar Noe ever since I first watched his highly controversial 2002 thriller “Irreversible.” Starring Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel, it was a rape revenge film told in reverse order like Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” and it featured, among other things, a rape scene done in one shot which lasted nine minutes, and another in which a man’s head is completely bashed in with a fire extinguisher. Many were quick to walk out of this film as they felt it promoted violence, but I can tell you few others are as anti-violent, anti-rape and anti-revenge as this one is. Moreover, it features scenes of sheer intimacy and thoughtfulness which some critics were not quick to see at first glance. Noe invites you to look beneath the surface, if you can, and see there is more to what meets the eye.

The same also goes with Noe’s other works which include “I Stand Alone,” “Enter the Void,” “Climax” and “Vortex” as he examines various issues with a thoughtfulness that often eludes his harshest critics. There is more to this director than simply shocking his audience, and he gives a lot of unforgettably surreal imagery with the help of acclaimed Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie who can light a scene ever so beautifully. His movies do not exist just to leave a permanent psychological scar on you. They leave you with a cinematic experience few other filmmakers could ever possibly give an audience, and I am always thankful for such motion pictures.

So, it was quite an honor to interview Noe back in 2016 when he was doing press for “Love” which he shot in 3D. The movie stars Karl Glusman as Murphy, an American student studying movies in Paris alongside his girlfriend, Electra (Aomi Muyock), whom he is having quite the sexual relationship with. The on one day, they come across a Danish teenager named Omi (Klara Kristin) with whom they engage in a threesome, but from there relationships take some truly powerfully emotional turns to where what was once found may forever be lost.

“Love” is, and will probably always be best known for its scenes featuring unsimulated sex, but for me this movie deals more with the emotions of love which lift us up to delirious heights, and also bring us down to such rock bottom lows we may find impossible to climb out of. Noe and I talked about these themes and other things during our time together, and he made it clear how this film should in no way be considered a porno.

Indeed, when it comes to the average filmgoer of any nation or ethnicity, I fear they will react in the following manner:

“Oh no, it’s a penis. A big hulking phallus. GET IT AWAY FROM ME! GET IT… oh wait, it’s just an AK-47. Whew! Thank goodness. I was worried for a second.”

Click here to check out my exclusive interview with “Love” star Karl Glusman.

Gaspar Noe’s ‘Climax’ is a Hypnotic Descent Into Hell

Climax movie poster

I will never forget when I first watched Terry Gilliam’s cinematic adaptation of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.” Seeing the main characters played by Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro descend into a drug-fueled inferno proved to be one of the most insane and chaotic cinematic experiences I’ve ever had to where I felt like a hammer was constantly bashing at my head. I was in college at the time, and I described it to my friends as being one long acid-trip nightmare. One friend, her name Wendy, looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, like you would know!” This led to another person, Matthew, across the table laughing and responding, “Hey Wendy, he’s right.”

Seriously, you don’t need to have any experience with drugs of any kind to call “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” an acid-trip nightmare, and the same goes for “Climax,” the latest cinematic opus from Gaspar Noe. Like the majority of his films, it proves to be exhilarating, hypnotic and gloriously out of control as we watch a group of dancers try to get a hold of their sanity after they discover the sangria they have been drinking has been spiked with LSD. Whether or not you have had any experience with this drug, you will agree the trip these characters go on is not the least bit pleasant.

“Climax” takes us back to the winter of 1996 and opens with a series of audition tapes featuring dancers who are being considered for a French dance troupe being created by Selva (Sofia Boutella) and DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile). Each dancer makes clear how intense their passion is for this particular artform and what they will do to make a career out of it. What’s interesting about this opening we are watching them on an old-style tube television which is surrounded by VHS tapes and books, all of which have influenced Noe’s filmmaking and personal beliefs. This includes such cinematic escapades like “Suspiria,” “Salo,” “Hara-Kiri” and “Possession,” and among the books are one by Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, famous for his ultra-negative views on life and humanity, “Junkie” by William S. Burroughs, “LSD Psychotherapy” by Stanislav Grof, and “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” (“We Children of Bahnhof Zoo”) by Christiane F. Seeing these materials around the TV set should make it clear that Noe is not about to play it safe for anybody.

Following this comes one of the most exhilarating dance sequences I have in a movie in a long time as we watch a five-minute-long scene in which characters perform with utter abandon as they contort their bodies in ways which amazed me to no end. As the camera swoops over the performers, we are sucked into their dance space to where I wanted to feel the passion they felt. Seeing this reminded me of when I first watched the music video to Madonna’s “Lucky Star” on MTV, back when they actually showed music videos, and of how I wanted to experience the same level of joy she was having.

Noe is up to his old tricks again as he starts “Climax” with the end credits first and then give us the opening credits about 45 minutes later. As for the title, it appears exactly where it should. It does take a while for things to get crazy as Noe takes his time introducing us to these dancers as they discuss the sexual conquests and/or the future they hope to have sooner rather than later. As this goes on, the techno music plays non-stop, and once you notice it slowing down all of a sudden, you know this shit is about to get real.

Once the characters begin to realize they are under the influence of a psychedelic substance they were not planning on ingesting before their performance, the movie becomes a slow descent into chaos, and I could not take my eyes off the screen for one second. Even as the events became more and more horrifically chaotic, I was sucked into the madness everyone was trapped in, and I had no idea of where the story was going. This kind of unpredictability is very rare in movies today.

It’s especially impressive to learn that “Climax” was shot in just 15 days and with a script only five pages long. Learning of this made me believe this film could have been an enormous mess were it in the hands of another filmmaker, but Noe gives this sheer chaos a structure even as the performers let themselves run wild with the material. Some will complain this movie has no real story or plot, but I am certain anyone who has taken LSD can assure us how most psychedelic trips do not come with a three-act structure.

Once again, Noe employs his and Harmony Korine’s favorite cinematographer, Benoît Debie, who gives us such striking and absorbing colors throughout. Whether the lighting is dark green or blindingly red, Debie captures the insane madness in all its visual beauty, and when the white of the snow appears it feels like such a relief. This makes me look forward to Korine’s upcoming movie “The Beach Bum” all the more as Debie is the cinematographer on it too.

Noe has gone on record in saying the production of “Climax” was the most peaceful he ever had as a director, and this is regardless of the movie’s content. Apparently, there were no arguments on set, and no drugs or alcohol were used by anyone during filming. The latter is worth pointing out as the cast does an excellent job of looking like they are being ravaged by a narcotic they didn’t plan on taking. They could have easily looked ridiculous to where the movie could have been laughable, but everyone looks to be on their game here.

The cast is made of both professional and non-professional actors, and the one who stands out the most is Sofia Boutella. The French-Algerian actress has long since made a name for herself with such memorable performances in “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “Star Trek Beyond” and “Atomic Blonde,” and watching her here is mesmerizing as she takes her character of Selva from a place of sanity to the polar opposite of it. She could have easily fallen into the trap of emoting here, but she never does as she makes Selva’s helpless predicament all the more frightening as this trip she is forced to take offers no easy escape for her or anyone else.

“Climax” may not reach the nightmarish heights of “Requiem for a Dream,” but it stands out as one of Noe’s strongest efforts. It doesn’t reach of what I feel is his masterpiece, “Enter the Void,” but it is stronger than his last movie, “Love 3D” which many were quick to dismiss as just another porno flick (I disagree). I for one am glad such daring filmmakers are still working in a time where superhero movies continue to dominate everything in the cinematic landscape. We need at least one filmmaker to break the rules, and Noe is no doubt one of them.

Again, I don’t think you need any experience with psychedelic substances to realize “Climax” is one long acid-trip nightmare. While the late Steve Jobs found an amazing level of creativity after experimenting with LSD, I don’t think the characters here will be anywhere as lucky, assuming they survive.

* * * ½ out of * * * *