Credit: Wild Bunch
by Paul Attard Featured Film Spotlight

Vortex — Gaspar Noé

April 26, 2022

Vortex is as viscerally bracing as Noe’s previous efforts, but here also cut through with a new, impressive level of restraint.

It’s become somewhat typical for the critical discourse surrounding Gaspar Noé’s films to be less about artistic merit than ethical concerns regarding their often charged depictions of bodily abuse — which, to be fair, should be attributed to wide-ranging shifts in analytical conceptions regarding cinema as a whole and not simply finger-wagging at the premier enfant terrible of the New French Extremity movement. But his distinct desire for pronounced provocation has always been rooted — and, to a degree, can only properly function — in a lawless territory of sorts: one outside the commonplace practices and understanding of ethics and morals, one removed from any widely-accepted beliefs in virtue. Depending on one’s views on portrayals of sexual violence, one could consider this a general worldview characterized by bitter, juvenile nihilism; but make no mistake, Noé himself is always deeply serious about this attitude, even when the more conventional dramatic elements of his works (the often risible dialogue, his character’s motivations, how “believable” any of their actions are) tend to border on sophomoric. 

Again, Noé’s interests lie somewhat apart from conventional practice: Unlike most who engage in commercial narrative cinema (to even lay claim that Noé does is a bit of a stretch), his tendency is to stimulate, to call attention to the physical relationship between the viewer and what’s being viewed, even if it produces some rather nonsensical results. If there’s a studiousness in his oeuvre, it comes via his strict formalism, which in and of itself borders on extreme. But that’s always in service of the given content: his form always serves as a conduit for a more penetrating understanding of his material. As fellow Frenchman Robert Bresson once put it during an interview on Cinépanorama, “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it. I’d rather feelings arise before intellect.” Noé, in that regard, is all affect and little acumen. His latest, Vortex, expectedly follows suit and can be seen as a companion piece to 2018’s Climax: both are essentially body-horror films about the involuntary loss of one’s own bodily autonomy, an inevitable fate for both young and old. 

Here, perdition manifests in the form of dementia, ravaging the mind of an elderly woman (played by Françoise Lebrun) and the mental stability of her caring, if inattentive husband (Dario Argento). They’re never named, hinting at a broad sense of universality to their misfortune, but there are specifics to consider. He’s an academic, writing a book on the link between “cinema and dreams,” who’s more distressed about meeting his publishing deadline than he is with his wife’s wellbeing. (Like most supposed intellectuals, he’s ill-equipped to deal with conflicts that operate outside of a strict sense of established logic.) She’s a pharmacist, over-prescribing a myriad of potent medications to herself, attempting to impede her eventual deterioration. They have one son (Alex Lutz), a recovering heroin addict, who too is financially and emotionally unstable for his parents to directly rely upon. The couple, who live in a cramped Parisian apartment lined with musty books and disheveled papers, must enter, experience, and endure this moribund spiral by themselves. While this may constitute a spoiler — though, considering the given trajectory, what else would one expect? — their living quarters eventually become their tombs, and we bear witness to the end of their lives. Their deaths are not sentimentalized, nor is there much moralistic musing. If anything, Vortex is primarily concerned with fundamental cinematic qualities of its basic premise: that of a lived-in, haptic experience, one propelled not by internal conflict, but by external forces acting upon an individual’s sense of perception and kinaesthesia.

To heighten this sensorial approach, Noé employs a rigid, and thematically apropos, formal gambit. Most of the film is presented as a dual-screen ordeal, with an opening introduction scene in widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) before shrinking into two Fox Movietone compositions (1.2:1) with the arrival of a literal dividing line: the duo are in bed, side-by-side, until a black border comes crashing down, forever separating the two with an external boundary neither could ever hope to remove. After this, we witness events locked from two restricted perspectives: one screen follows the wife as she wanders around their apartment and the city at large, the other tracks the husband as he goes about his daily activities (the son gets thrown into the mix as well, adding some much-needed visual and narrative variety). Even when they’re in the same room, there’s a distinct delineation in spatial perspective between the two screens. In other words, even when they’re together, they’re apart.

There are precedents for this aesthetic style, albeit mostly in experimental cinema. Paul Sharits’ Razor Blades comes to mind: it begins as one whole screen before splitting off onto two apparatuses of information, finally ending in the same form as it began (all while requiring two separate projectors for the entire runtime). But the project most akin to Noé’s goals here is Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s three-hour-dual-projected behemoth Chelsea Girls, as both are largely spontaneous exercises in pushing the boundaries of moviegoers’ comfort. Most of Vortex‘s dialogue was improvised, and it often shows, further stretching the film’s already deliberate pace; unlike Climax, it features no psychedelic freak-outs or really anything grotesque or outlandish enough to overtly rupture the proceedings. It’s a slow, placid work that displays old age as-is: a mundane demise that robs one of their cerebral capacities, marked by boredom and increasing repetition, with the aforementioned dividing line serving to further illustrate a receding frame of reference towards the world at large. 

Many will find this “novel” presentation morally dubious, but again, Noé doesn’t trade on conventional notions of integrity. He deals with the here and now, with the uncomfortable realities of the world as is, one away from such comfortable bourgeoisie notions of “good taste.” He deemed this method the most appropriate way to transmit such anguish to spectators, so while this, on a superficial level, may be his most humane effort — a label that wrongly suggests he’s never cared for any of his previous characters except in a callously cruel manner — Vortex is nevertheless as viscerally bracing as the provocateur’s previous efforts, imbued also with a new sense of restraint that even his most stark detractors would be hard-pressed to outright discredit.

Originally published as part of NYFF 2021 — Dispatch 4.