It was already a heavy weekend before I got sick and illness has kept me mostly in bed over the past few days, so if you have found your way to still visiting the site while I have been inactive, I thank you for that and appreciate you. I have seen some films that I want to talk about, but this is the first time in three days that I have felt, mostly, able to sit at the computer and write. As a welcome back, let’s get into Gaspar Noé’s painful but honest dementia drama. Yay! Vortex is a masterfully crafted piece of cinema that’s beauty is matched by its frightening authenticity.
An elderly couple, living on their own, faces a sharp decline in their mental and physical condition while their son, who is a reformed addict, attempts to help as best as he can.
If that sounds heavy and sad, that’s because it definitely is. If you have never gone through witnessing a parent degrade physically and/or mentally, it’s hard to explain the difficulties that come along with it. While the film is going to resonate most with the 40-and-over audience, just because that’s the demographic that’s most likely to have gone through something similar, it is a sincere look at a very real subject.
Gaspar Noé developed the project after suffering a brain hemorrhage that nearly killed him and was face-to-face with some of those questions about what happens to our loved ones in the wake of our passing. Besides the incredible performances and the skillful craftsmanship that went into the filmmaking (I’ll get to that), the thing that perhaps stood out most was the remarkable accuracy of its subtle details. Nuance is important, especially with a story such as this, and Noé really dialed that in. It’s little things from managing medications and appointments to broader concepts like loss of independence and mounting regret that really inform the character of this story. Even his more eccentric works have been done with thoughtfulness but this may be his most well-rounded in that regard.
When talking about character, there’s no overlooking the brilliant performances from Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento. I don’t want to sell Alex Lutz short for his role as the couple’s son Stéphane, he’s an important part and plays it well, but the film distinctly belongs to his co-stars. Each distinct in their ways, Argento gets to be the robust, over-the-top personality who still thinks he is in control…or at least has a firm grasp on things. Meanwhile, his professional pursuits have blinded him from the everyday reality of what’s happening. Watching him struggle, to reconcile those two things, was particularly poignant. Lebrun painted her canvas with more intricate brush strokes, primarily through her facial expressions and body language, and it’s the perfect complement to Argento’s bold gestures. The way she navigates a room or (more powerfully) fails to, brings so much texture to the film and hers was probably the best performance I have seen in 2022 so far. She would be the frontrunner for Best Actress/Supporting right now.
All those elements build into an atypical Noé film. It’s not explicitly sexual or visually psychedelic in the way some of his others have been. Still, the gritty and often claustrophobic nature of the film had its own character. The split-screen approach was interesting in that it takes this couple, who have this life together, and then isolates each of them. I read another review that pointed out that choice is a reminder that in the end, we are all alone. That’s kind of a sad way to view it, but it makes sense in the telling of this story. One of the things I appreciated most about the split-screen was how precise the blocking had to be for most of the shoot. There are some moments, where the scenes are stitched together in post-production, but for the most part, it seemed like most of the film was shot with two concurrent cameras. When you see the space they are working in most, it’s incredible, and cinematographer Benoît Debie made the most of a fairly limited set with this style.
Reminiscent of Noé’s other work, this is a film that stays with you after you finish it. It gets under your skin and it’s heavy. Right after the film ended, the air sort of left the room, and you’re left to reflect in that silence. It won’t resonate with everybody, but it will land pretty squarely for the right audience and I would expect to see this one popping up in conversation for Best International Feature later in the year.
Recommendation: If you are willing to extend yourself a little, this is a film for those who appreciate the transformative and empathetic power of cinema. It is not intended as a piece of “entertainment” for the average moviegoing audience.