Cinematic Releases: Vortex (2021) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Utopia
In 2009, Argentinian-French provocateur Gaspar Noe took audiences with his first English language picture into a journey towards death from the point of view of what a lifeless spirit might see when leaving the body in a psychedelic hyperkinetic cinematic provocation called Enter the Void.  One of many films that dealt with the afterlife while also continuing down the director’s pot stirring path of upending audience expectations by testing their tolerance for visceral sensory assault, the film is a hardcore audiovisual freefall into sex, drugs, death and rebirth that seemed to cement the filmmaker’s final word on the process of dying.

Circa 2020 after three more feature film productions which followed including Climax and his short split-screen feature Lux Æterna, Gaspar Noe suffered a near fatal brain hemorrhage which upon recovery seemed to upend and transform the director’s own perspective on the fragility of life.  Arguably scaring the director straight, Noe all but wiped the slate clean with what is pretty clearly his most mature artistic, cinematic and personal expression to date, a sobering look the process of aging and dying called Vortex.  For once, French cinema’s so-called enfant terrible looked inward and didn’t embark on a project designed to shock and horrify.  Instead, it is a raw, saddening but ultimately sobering look at what to prepare for when our own final days near themselves.

Starring legendary Italian horror film director Dario Argento in his first (and last) acting role in a film alongside veteran French actress Françoise Lebrun, the film concerns a nameless elderly couple consisting of a professorial film writer living with his psychiatrist wife enjoying their final years in tranquility inside their cramped but cozy flat.  Soon the wife begins wandering the grocery store aisles endlessly while her husband desperately searches to find her as her mental health progressively worsens.  Meanwhile their grown son played by Alex Lutz is fraught with his own personal problems while trying to help lend a hand to what is shaping up to be a sinking ship threatening to take the couple down together. 
The first thing one notices as Vortex unfolds are the screen proportions lensed by Noe’s right hand man Benoit Debie in soft but painterly detail.  Beginning in 1.33:1 fullscreen with the image posited at the center of the screen, the film soon splits into two separate fullscreen images at opposite sides of the 2.35:1 widescreen frame, following Argento and Lebrun separately on their day-to-day routines in real time though each screen is either edited differently or they appear to mirror each other.  At times too one screen on the left or the right goes out, leaving audiences to deal with a blank spot on the image.  That the entirety of the film plays with split screen in this way makes the film an ever subtly disorienting experience. 

As always, the echospheric soundscapes rendered by Noe intended for theater sound playback are dense and adorned with a tracklist of popular preexisting tunes.  What’s most striking of all about Vortex is what it doesn’t have in a Noe film for a change.  No sex, no violence, no swearing, and subtle drug references.  The racy provocateur who seemed determined with his other movies to get an X rating including but not limited to the obligatory inclusion of unsimulated sexual content serves forth debatably his very first PG-13 film production this time around.  The shock in this being that there is no shock, only the sad dread of inevitability and aftermath which follows an elderly person reaching the end of their timeline.

Dario Argento has never acted before though he’s directed many an actor over the course of his prolific career in giallo horror fare and though Noe and fellow European provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn started hanging out as a bad boy trio, the Italian legend’s participation in the project seemed like stunt casting.  That is until you see him move about naturally onscreen, speaking French fluently while carrying on a nagging cough that worsens into heavy wheezing over the course of the movie.  Gentlemanly and aristocratic while not afraid to show off his aged wrinkles in a momentary shower sequence that ends in disaster when his wife “cleans” his papers, Argento’s performance is at once revealing and perfectly appropriate for the dark and foreboding journey this film would take its characters and audiences down.

The one who does all of the hardest of heavy lifting in the picture no doubt is Françoise Lebrun who begins as a cheery and intelligent lady of equal to her husband’s success who freely continues to write prescriptions for her patients as her own mental health begins to deteriorate.  Seeing Lebrun pacing back and forth down grocery store hallways looking for…something, anything for, who, what, where, when, why?  

In her face all of those points of confusion play out with her in midstep as her husband desperately tries to control an unfolding natural disaster he’s ill equipped to contain.  Lebrun’s wandering eyes and blank face interspersed with random bursts into crying fits as she forgets her husband and son’s own name while forgetting her own home plays out with raw yet understated power, going for how something like this would really affect elders rather than going for bombastic “performances”.

Shaping up for many to be the most well received and critically acclaimed picture of Gaspar Noe’s career and his only picture that doesn’t lean on extremity and screams, going for subtler but more deeply affecting notes, Vortex is a quiet yet relentless journey into senility and death reminiscent of Amour and the recently released Oscar winner The Father.  

Still, while those films tended to sadden or disturb, Vortex comes as an expression of wisdom about the unforgiving, unfeeling, unthinking nature of deterioration and death that isn’t morbid about it but instead tells the plain cold truth in all of its matter-of-fact banality whether we want to be there or not.  Noe’s still dark and foreboding but he does so from an unexpectedly unextreme and therefore more profoundly powerful angle than he’s done in the past.  An unhappy, distressing but in the end rewarding cinematic experience delivered by one of modern cinema’s most underrated and innovative storytellers.

--Andrew Kotwicki