Release Date(s)2021 (November 29, 2022)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
Gaspar Noé’s Vortex opens, as so many of his films do, with the full closing credits, followed by a peaceful moment between Lui (Dario Argento) and Elle (Françoise Lebrun) as they share a meal on their apartment’s porch. Elle comments that life is a dream, and Lui responds that it’s a dream within a dream, alluding to the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. That portends the storms that will follow, since Poe was writing about his inability to stop the implacable flow of time as the sands of life slipped through his fingers. Noé then drives that point home by showing a vintage clip of Françoise Hardy performing her 1965 hit Mon amie la rose, singing about how her life is as ephemeral as that of her friend the rose:
The good Lord smiled on me
So why then should it be
I feel I’m falling now
Oh yes, I’m falling now
My heart no one can say
My head begins to bow
My feet are in the grave
The rose God smiled upon
Tomorrow will be gone
Forever, gone away.
Lui and Elle are an elderly couple who may already have one foot in the grave, but their remaining days together have been complicated by something beyond the normal concerns of aging and bodily decay. Elle has dementia, and their togetherness is now threatened by the fact that she’s slowly falling into a spiral that will leave her trapped alone inside her own deteriorating mental state. The opening shots of Vortex are composed to show Lui and Elle sharing the same 1.33:1 frame, but once Hardy has finished her song, the couple is shown lying in bed together with a line slowly falling down the screen between them, and then the frame is split into two. With few exceptions, the rest of the film stays in split screen, with Lui and Elle each occupying their own spaces.
Noé has always delighted in creating a sense of unease for the audience through unstable camerawork, stroboscopic lighting, deafening soundtracks, subsonic droning tones, and nonlinear narratives. All of those visual, aural, and chronological effects are missing from Vortex. Instead, Noé uses the far simpler means of the split screens to create unease of a very different sort. Since both sides of their lives are presented simultaneously, rather than being broken down consecutively through the editorial process, it forces viewers to confront cause and effect at the same time. The familiar structures of classical editing are replaced by seeing both lives unfold simultaneously. It’s another way of embodying the manifesto of the great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni:
“I’m against—I can really feel the weariness of certain mechanisms that are resorted to in conventional films, or in the majority of commercial films. I think these mechanisms are false. I believe reality has a different rhythm. In certain moments, life has different rhythms. At times it’s dynamic, at other times static. So why should we avoid the static moments to concern ourselves only with the dynamic ones? If a film is to take account of reality, our reality, the reality we live in, it must also consider the rhythms of this reality. Otherwise, we move away from what’s real and produce something false.”
While Antonioni worked out that principle by favoring the static over the dynamic, slowing down the pace of his films as a whole, Noé’s roving cameras in Vortex relentlessly pursue his subjects wherever they go, never leaving them alone, even when the characters are separated. That reproduces the contrasting rhythms of life in a different way than Antonioni did, as it doesn’t allow the viewer to fully focus on either Lui or Elle in favor of the other. They’re always present together on screen, even when separated in person, regardless of how mundane their activities may be. Yet the division between them never goes away, because even when they’re together in person, the cameras keep them separated. Each of them is shot from a slightly different angle, so the twin frames don’t line up perfectly, almost like two misaligned Cinerama panels. It’s a deliberately jarring effect that keeps viewers from growing complacent.
Noé keeps the split screens going for nearly the entire running time of Vortex, right up until the devastating moment when one of the twin frames goes totally black, leaving the other image (and the other person) totally alone. When the second image finally returns, it’s no less lonely than it was before, providing no comfort for anyone, the viewer included. Noé closes Vortex with a montage of images showing the emptiness of what had once been filled with vitality. Ultimately, that’s all that any of us will leave behind: just a collection of images and memories. The real tragedy of dementia is that the loss of memory deprives those images of meaning, leaving just the emptiness. Noé’s own epitaph for Vortex sums it up perfectly:
Dedicated to all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.
Noé’s longtime cinematographer Benoît Debie captured Vortex digitally using twin ARRI Alexa Mini LF cameras with 15 mm Laowa Zero-D Cine lenses. Debie and Noé served as camera operators, with the taller Debie generally following Argento, and the slightly shorter Noé trailing Françoise Lebrun. Since that resulted in a vertical mismatch when the images were joined side-by-side, they exposed a larger frame area than they intended to use, so that the relative heights could be adjusted and the images digitally stabilized in post. That post-production work was completed as a 2K Digital Intermediate, with the various 1.33:1 frames contained within an overall 2.39:1 aspect ratio (side-by-side, centered, or to one side, as the case may be). Everything is reasonably sharp and relatively clean, though there’s perhaps just a touch of noise in a few of the darker shots—Debie relied on natural lighting throughout, so he would have had to make some exposure adjustments depending on the conditions. That also means that the contrast range isn’t always the deepest, with some elevated black levels, but that’s true to how Debie captured all of it. The colors are appropriately muted, but they look accurate.
Audio is offered in French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with non-removable English subtitles, and optional closed captioning for the hearing impaired. Needless to say, it’s a very quiet and understated mix, with most of the sonic energy in the front channels, and just some light ambience in the surrounds. Even the music is subdued, as aside from the opening song by Françoise Hardy, there are only a few bits of source music audible in the background during the film itself. Noé is famous for providing a sonic assault on the senses in films like Irreversible, but in this case, he lets the power of the images speak for themselves.
The Utopia Blu-ray release of Vortex includes a reversible insert with alternate theatrical poster artwork on each side, as well as an 8-page booklet featuring an essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. (Vinegar Syndrome’s website incorrectly identifies Heather Drain.) There’s also a spot gloss slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 2,000 units, featuring artwork by Derek Gabryszak. The following extras are included, all in HD:
- Q&A #1 with Gaspar Noé (22:50)
- Q&A #2 with Gaspar Noé (26:32)
- Theatrical Trailer (1:32)
The first Q&A with Noé took place at the IFC Center in April of 2022, after a screening of Vortex, and is moderated by Eric Kohn of Indiewire. It opens with several questions from Kohn, and then moves to taking questions from the audience. Despite the fact that Noé had experimented with split screens in his short films Lux Aeterna and Saint Laurent – Summer of ’21, he hadn’t originally intended to shoot all of Vortex that way, but that changed when he saw how well that it worked when assembling the first scenes. He also explains the casting process that led to Dario Argento’s participation. Noé wanted Argento to take ownership over the character, so he was happy to let Argento essentially direct himself, and also agreed to Argento’s condition that the character have a mistress. While the concept for Vortex obviously takes some inspirations from Noé’s own experiences, he describes the film as being more universal than personal, and not autobiographical in any significant way.
The second Q&A took place for the US premiere of Vortex at the 59th New York Film Festival in September of 2021, and was conducted by director of programming Dennis Lim. Since Noé was physically unavailable for the festival, the interview was recorded via Zoom—and appropriately enough, it’s a split-screen presentation. Noé explains how Vortex came together relatively quickly, and how it fits in with other films about dementia like Away with Her and Amour. He’s still emphatic that his film isn’t autobiographical, he still relates it to his experiences with his mother, and to his own brain hemorrhage. He says that the closer that you are to death, the less you believe that there’s anything after it. While Enter the Void was inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, he doesn’t actually believe in any of that. The interview closes with Noé warning audiences to get ready to cry.
That’s an appropriate warning for everyone who watches Vortex. Dario Argento may be best known for his work behind the camera in the horror genre, but his character in front of the camera here is forced to confront horrors of a very different sort. For many people, the loss of their own mental faculties is one of the most terrifying things imaginable, and for those who are forced to watch it happen to a friend or family member, it’s one of the saddest. Vortex isn’t an easy film to watch, in more ways than one, but it’s a moving portrait of how people process this kind of tragedy—from within and without.
- Stephen Bjork