Vortex (2021)

When a loved one has dementia, he or she feels so near yet so far—this universal feeling is ontologically perfected by Noe in cinematic terms through the split-screen technique, which forms the backbone of this grim but emotionally powerful documentary-esque work about ageing, mortality and love. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,351

Dir. Gaspar Noe
2021 | France | Drama | 142 mins | 2.40:1 & 1.20:1 | French & English
NC16 (passed clean) for drug use

Cast: Dario Argento, Francoise Lebrun, Alex Lutz
Plot: A quasi-documentary film about the last days of a loving elderly couple stricken by age and dementia.
Awards: Official Selection (Cannes)
International Sales: Wild Bunch

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Mortality; Dementia
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: Screener – Singapore Film Society Showcase
Spoilers: No


Hate it or love it, one can’t deny that Gaspar Noe’s films are cinematic experiences.  Some are utterly wild and psychedelic like Climax (2018), or nauseously challenging like his masterpiece Irreversible (2002). 

In his latest, Vortex, we see a mellower Noe, yet his ability to provoke remains intact.  Perhaps mellow isn’t the right word; Noe is simply showing another side of him in what is his most mature film to date. 

Functioning like a documentary of a fictive elderly couple (played by Giallo master Dario Argento and veteran actress Francoise Lebrun), Vortex charts their daily lives, but there’s a catch: the wife is suffering from dementia while her husband has heart problems. 

It’s a grim affair, and you might recall the sombreness of Haneke’s similarly-themed Amour (2012), which is apparent in Noe’s work.  Yet this is no Amour 2.0, but another inspired take on ageing, mortality and the meaning of love, this time uniquely envisioned as a split-screen experience. 

“Let’s pretend it’s normal.”

The split-screen technique can be gimmicky, but under Noe’s hands, it is crucial and wholly part of the form and structure of his creation. 

I would even go to the extent of saying that it is an ingenious way of depicting not dementia, but the human implications of dementia.  Why is it that when we encounter a loved one who has dementia, he or she seems so near yet so far? 

This universal feeling of ‘near yet far’ is ontologically perfected by Noe in cinematic terms through the split-screen, most evidently in certain scenes that play out within the same space where the characters’ gestures and movements ‘cross over’ from left frame to right and vice versa. 

It is a strange thing to see on the screen, but it is no more stranger than how it must feel to communicate with someone physically close but mentally a world apart.  Vortex is also emotionally affecting, quite unusual for a film by the provocateur, which makes it all the more powerful an experience.

Grade: A-


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