Director: Gaspar Noé (France, Belgium, Monaco). Year of Release: 2022
Opening credits reading “to those whose brains will decay before their hearts” are followed by a shot of a couple in a relatively large Paris apartment, eating on their balcony. He quotes Edgar Allan Poe, saying that life is a dream within a dream. Cue to Françoise Hardy singing that she is one foot in the grave. The worry that this film is going to go off the top of the pretentiousness scale starts to tingle in your breast.
Cut to two split screens in 4:3 ratio of each of the couple waking up. She rises first and starts pottering around the house. He stirs not long afterwards. Out of synch, they piss, he sits at an old typewriter and types with two fingers. Occasionally they come together, and the split screen shows the same scene from different angles.
While he’s busy working, she takes the rubbish out, then leaves the house. In a panic, he visits the local shops, trying to find her. The guy at the bookshop promises to hold a copy of books back which would be useful for his work. He eventually finds her in the local store. She’d asked for the section where she could buy toys, but her mind has obviously since moved onto something else.
She is obviously suffering from fading capabilities. Although she has lucid moments, it’s not always safe to let her go out on her own. She is rarely able to articulate a full sentence. Occasionally she leaves the gas on. On one occasion, she decides to clean up the flat, chops up the manuscript of her husband’s next book and flushes it down the toilet. Once a psychiatrist, she writes herself prescriptions and tries to get the local pharmacy to give her inappropriate amounts of drugs.
He had a heart attack a couple of years ago, and although he is still active – he’s in the process of writing a book on the relationship between films and dreams – he’s still barely able to look after himself. He seems to be quite attracted to the idea that she be sent to a home, while he stays there with all his stuff (every spare wall contains an overfull bookshelf next to posters. Some of the posters are artistic, some of films, and a lot of political subjects like CRS SS or Angela Davis).
The couple are never named throughout the film. The split screen almost exclusively shows us parallel shots of each of them, and occasionally of their son Stéphane. Stéphane suggests that they go into a home together, as the only plausible way of gaining enough help. He gets increasingly frustrated that his father makes lists of what needs to be done, without actually doing any of it.
Stéphane is not the best person to offer care for his parents. He is recovering from battles with substance abuse, and is bringing up his son KiKi on his own. As he says “I can’t help you. I can’t even help myself.” He later admits his inability to take on adult responsibilities. When Stéphane visits his parents, KiKi plays loudly with his toy cars, begging for his own attention. Stéphane seems genuinely keen to help his parents, but is not really able to bring much to the table.
You get the impression that two lives which were once closely intertwined are starting to slowly drift apart. He does not know how to cope. She starts to blame herself for the plight that they are all in, saying that it would be much better if she were dead. As well as this being deeply poignant, it’s not really what one would expect of director Gaspar Noé, whose previous films have tended to be more aimed at the clubbing yoof end of the market.
This is a slow film in which not much happens, and it happens twice. If we exclude the moments in which (spoiler alert, but not too much as this is a film about very old people), one of the parents dies and one of the screens goes blank, the combination of a long film and split screen means that we see nearly 5 hours of footage. I was in a press showing and nearly everyone in the room took at least one toilet break, due to the length but also the intensity of what we were viewing.
This was a film that carried a serious danger of getting very boring very quickly, but somehow it doesn’t. Apparently the dialogue is largely improvised, which is on balance a help, but does contribute to there not being much of a story as such. It also contains one of the first acting performances of cult director Dario Argento, who inhabits the persona of the ageing Italian-French lead actor perfectly.
You need to be in a certain sort of mood to appreciate Vortex. It is not a film to watch when you have an urgent appointment directly afterwards. But if you are able to give it enough time, it is a moving story of how the ageing process catches up with us all. Maybe I’m particularly vulnerable to its charms following the fairly recent death of my mother, who, like the female lead, approached a state of dementia. But I think this is a film which contains universal truths which can speak to us all.