Destined to Die 

In filmmaker Gaspar Noè’s latest, “Vortex,” his obsession with misery morphs into transcendent humanism.

click to enlarge An unnamed and elderly Parisian couple (Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun) grapple with his heart problems and  her encroaching dementia in Gaspar Noè’s "Vortex."

An unnamed and elderly Parisian couple (Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun) grapple with his heart problems and her encroaching dementia in Gaspar Noè’s "Vortex."

Gaspar Noè’s 2002 “Irreversible” ends with an onscreen sentence: “Time destroys everything.”

In the context of the film, a brutal rape-revenge melodrama told in reverse chronological order, those words feel both cleansing and astonishingly obvious. Crueler than the film’s nearly 10-minute rape scene, captured in a single unbroken shot, is that tricky structure. We roam in hell first only to gradually ascend to the heavens of a relationship in bloom—cursed with the knowledge of what’s to come.

I thought of “Irreversible,” which I haven’t faced since its release, while watching Noè’s “Vortex.” Taken at their broadest and most literal, both films concern, well, time destroying everything. “Vortex” is even more disturbing because it concerns an occurrence that is unavoidable if we live long enough: the dangers and humiliations of old age.

An unnamed and elderly Parisian couple (Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun) grapple with his heart problems and especially with her encroaching dementia. The film’s opening is as merciless in its way as anything in “Irreversible,” as we see the couple having lunch on their rooftop, enjoying a moment of repose before the hammer falls. In these lovely moments, we’re acquainted with a dream of what “growing old together” can mean, though we know, especially with Noè at the helm, that this dream is destined to die.

“Cleansing and astonishingly obvious” is Noè in a nutshell, as his cinema is a singular mixture of the didactic and subtle. “Vortex” pivots on a stylistic conceit that should be numbingly gimmicky, as nearly all of its two-and-a-half hours unfold via a split screen, usually with him in one panel and her in the other. We immediately get the point—that they live in separate yet conjoined realms—yet Noè keeps adding fleet fillips to this conceit. The introduction of the split screen is brilliant: After the rooftop idle, we see the couple in bed as a black bar descends, bifurcating the screen. The room is so shadowy that we can’t see the entirety of the bar at first, and so people walking into “Vortex” cold may not know what’s going on until the next shot. Just as dementia may slowly intrude on our lives, ravaging body and family with a terrifying sense of insinuation.

I was leery of “Vortex” sight unseen, as I wasn’t sure about looking at a split-screen for over two hours without the relief of conventionally invisible staging. The device is fun, even intense, for a few minutes in a Brian De Palma film; and it was utilized cleverly by Noè previously in the 51-minute “Lux AEterna,” which has also been released in America this year. But I skipped all those Mike Figgis split-screen experiments in the ‘90s, as I was essentially of the opinion that the device was more for transparently utilizing a director’s skill with choreography than with telling a story—the cinematic equivalent of a solo that’s in a song simply for virtuosity’s sake. “Vortex” disabused me of this notion.

The casual sensory feast of “Vortex” renders most movies anemic by comparison. Each of the two screens is filled with an overwhelming collection of variables, as the couple’s apartment is one of those charmingly rustic places filled to the gills with bric-a-brac. The place seems both cuddly and, given her illness, imposing—there are many ways here for her to inadvertently hurt them.

Tracking shots dominate both frames, particularly whichever screen she occupies, as quite a bit of her new life is pitilessly shown to be composed of aimless wandering. Wandering in her frame is often contrasted with stillness in his, as he’s understood implicitly to be searching for refuge from her madness. A film critic working on a book about dreams and cinema that he calls “Psyche,” he is often seen in his nest of an office, writing, smoking, and trying in vain to call his longtime mistress. Above all though, we are intensely aware at all times of multiple, irreconcilable points of view that exist simultaneously in any given space. Noè’s split screens evoke the mystery of people, of life, as well as the unmooring work of attaining empathy.

The split-screen and the tracking shot devices merge to startling effect. When he and she crisscross into one another’s frames, their profound separateness is intensified—so close yet divided by the ocean of her diminishing mind and his desperation and bitterness as well as time’s unceasing erosion. When someone reaches toward someone else, the bar splitting the screen separates body parts into abstract components: his upper arm on his side, maybe his hand on hers, suggesting how much distance must be crossed for communion.

Much of the bric-a-brac in the apartment emphasizes past glories and modern diminishment. Artifacts reference the uprising in France of May 1968, and there are many posters of classic films such as Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “A Woman is a Woman.” Even the casting suggests cinema of a fading past. Lebrun appeared in Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore,” while Argento is the legendary Italian horror filmmaker behind masterpieces such as “Deep Red” and “Suspiria.”

Lebrun was already a great actress, but Argento is a revelation. It’s a shame that this filmmaker, who hasn’t directed a good movie in many years, hasn’t acted more. You don’t see him acting, as he fully inhabits an old man in an untenably horrifying and ultimately quite lonely situation. Well, you do see Argento acting, incredibly, in a go-for-broke late scene when the man has a heart attack. Wandering now himself throughout the apartment in shadows, Argento’s face occasionally resembles Boris Karloff’s in Karl Freund’s “The Mummy,” gasping for air for an agonizingly prolonged stretch. Argento fashions a potential death rattle into a soliloquy of loss.

This moment has melodramatic implications, as the heart attack occurs minutes after his lover has rebuffed him, suggesting that his heart is quite literally breaking. Which is to say that this scene boldly disrupts the rigorous quotidian-minded reality of the film, plunging us into a subjective realm, the cinema-as-dream reality about which the man is fated to never finish elucidating in his book.

Sometimes Noè’s stunts can feel like just that—pokes from a talented provocateur. In “Vortex,” his obsession with misery morphs into transcendent humanism. Our preoccupations, sanity-nurturing dams against tides of chaos, mean nothing once time really gets around to working us over.



More by Chuck Bowen

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