In the middle of the night, the old woman wakes up with a start. Earlier she and her husband had a beautiful summer evening together, but the carefreeness of that now seems light years away. What’s happening to her? What does she fear?
Those questions are at the beginning of Vortex hardly occurred to you, when a thick black line slides down the cinema screen. Right through the middle of the matrimonial bed, as if the Argentinian-French filmmaker Gaspar Noé draws an inexorable boundary between the (never named) husband and wife. Only their hands still touch.
The split screen, the screen divided in two, is an eerily precise metaphor for the elderly couple’s shared loneliness as they reach the final stages of their togetherness. Vortex takes place almost entirely in the overgrown, labyrinthine apartment of the two, where they wander as lovers and as strangers. She (Françoise Lebrun) was once a doctor, but disappears into herself due to rapid dementia. He (horror director Dario Argento, outstanding in his first leading role) is a film critic who takes care of his wife alone, struggling with heart problems. Sometimes they are visited by their son (Alex Lutz) and grandson (Kylian Dheret), in real-life family scenes that shed their own poignant light on the situation.
Noé and cameraman Benoît Debie shot Vortex with two cameras operating simultaneously to regularly overlap, rhyme and intersect the parallel images. Sometimes the man and woman can be seen synchronously from the back, they momentarily slip into each other’s view, or his hand reaches beyond the split screen to her arm.
Such details have a crushing effect. Noé, man of sledgehammer blows like the drug pandemonium Climax (2018) and the revenge rape drama told in reverse chronological order Irreversible (2002), made with Vortex his hardest movie. Memories, someone’s left behind: it all becomes waste, Noé wanted with the idea inspired by his own experiences Vortex to show. He succeeded magnificently.
at the same time Vortex has become his warmest and most humane film. The close bond between the writer and his wife remains the foundation, precisely because of the split screen: although it separates the lovers, it also keeps them almost constantly side by side. The true acting of Argento and Lebrun also makes perfectly palpable what still connects their characters, what strength must be needed to continue together – as long as it lasts. Extremely poignant how all this is united in those demarcated frames, and in the black surrounding it.
Directed by Gaspar Noe
With Dario Argento, Françoise Lebrun, Alex Lutz, Kylian Dheret
142 min., in 44 rooms.