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Vortex review – Gaspar Noé’s stunning split-screen descent into dementia

Gaspar Noé brings his cauterisingly fierce gaze to the spectacle of old age: the world of those about to enter the void. He brings to it a particular structural insight which I don’t think I have ever seen represented so clearly. Dying is bifurcated: a real-time split-screen experience divided between the carer and the cared-for. An old married couple, people who have had a lifetime to wonder which of them will die first and which of them will have to take up the burden of care, find that it is not so clear during the terrible endgame itself.

Veteran director Dario Argento and actor, screenwriter and director Françoise Lebrun play a couple who live together in a small, chaotic Parisian apartment covered in an amiable clutter of books and papers. He is evidently a film-maker or maybe a writer, working on a book about cinema and dreams entitled Psyche; she is a retired psychiatrist. They have a son, Stéphane (Alex Lutz) who is himself the father of a small boy, and burdened with drug issues and money and marital worries. The movie opens – ominously – with a video clip of Françoise Hardy performing the 60s chanson Mon Amie la Rose, about the mortality of flowers. Then Argento and Lebrun enjoy a modest meal on their rickety terrace: these are Lebrun’s final moments of lucidity. We learn that she suffered a stroke a few years ago and has been descending into dementia since then; recently the rate of decline has accelerated.

Noé splits the screen into two, dual stories running concurrently, showing in one half Argento’s character pottering thoughtfully about the flat, in denial about what is happening: reading, snoozing, clattering away at his manual typewriter and also leaving surreptitious phone messages, like a lovelorn teenager, for a woman called Claire with whom he has been miserably in love for decades. Meanwhile, on the left-hand side of the screen, Lebrun’s character, with the impassive, leonine expression of dementia patients, wanders off into the streets without telling her husband, or throws all his notes away, or dangerously leaves the gas on, all in a miserable haze of unknowing.

Stéphane comes around to see them, deeply upset by what is happening, and by his own inability to persuade them to enter a care home; this is a subject complicated by his own history with his psychiatrist mother, stricken by the fact that he and they now live in a world of drugs, legal and illegal. Noé will periodically contrive a camera-cut in either of the frames and resume from another point of view; occasionally the two scenes will overlap creating a Hockneyesque perspective-dissonance. Brutally, the medium is the message. These two people will never again share the same screen.

This is a movie without the pornographic and psychedelic sheen of Noé’s previous work, but those earlier pictures had a recurring trick: forcing audiences to the edge of nausea by making them stare into a vortex of flickering stroboscopic light. In this movie, death is the vortex: the dark focus, whose gravitational pull gets stronger – and harder to avoid thinking about – with every passing year. And Vortex tells us something else about old age, something which a severe and high-minded movie like Michael Haneke’s Amour would not grasp: death is chaotic, like life. It ends with things undone and in messy disarray. This is a work of wintry maturity, but real compassion.

Vortex is released on 13 May in cinemas.


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