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Vortex (2021) Review: The Difficulty of Being One Piece!

Two elderly couples embracing each other in the movie poster for "Vortex".

Gaspar Noé’s latest film deviates from his usual style, but is still one of his darkest and most challenging works to date.

For over twenty years, the sensational Argentinian director Gaspar Noé has been making waves with every film he creates. In Vortex (2021), which stars two cinema icons, Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento, we witness an elderly couple’s descent into dementia and the whirlwind that ensues when they invite guests into their home. The film focuses on the couple’s final days as they reflect on their years spent together in a Parisian apartment. This family drama may resonate with many viewers who can relate to the struggles of aging and memory loss. Although Vortex may seem like a departure from Noé’s usual style, his signature touches and challenging approach to cinema can still be found in the film.

“To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts…”

A Film Exploring Memory, Aging, and the Human Condition

The director draws from his own personal experience with dementia, a disease that afflicted his mother and grandmother. We meet our unnamed protagonist, played by Françoise Lebrun, as she begins to forget small details of her daily routine and eventually loses all recollection of her home and husband of forty years.

The film, much like the apartment where most of it takes place, is filled with references and details that bubble up from every corner. Dario Argento plays the role of the father, who now finds himself taking on the role of his wife’s caretaker. He is also a respected film critic who is working on a book about the connection between dreams and movies. One of the film’s most striking references is a quote from Edgar Allan Poe, which Argento recites: “All that we see or seem. Is but a dream within a dream.” Vortex is a challenging, yet rewarding film that delves into the complexities of memory, aging, and the human condition.

Opening scene of the movie Vortex, featuring Dario Argento as Lui and Françoise Lebrun as Elle quietly having breakfast in their picturesque flowery garden.

Split-Screen Technique and Space Design in Vortex

In this peaceful balcony scene where the couple clink their glasses together, the screen splits in half with both of them in the frame lying on a bed. Noé previously used this split-screen technique in his film Lux Æterna (2019), but this time we experience it specifically in Vortex. It becomes an extremely functional move to depict the couple’s relationship that cannot be the same anymore after spending most of their lives together. Throughout the film, this move not only describes their situation but also changes the viewing experience. We mostly follow Lebrun in one box and Argento (or their point of view) in the other. This active action capturing method actually gives Noé multiple opportunities to depict the world he designed. Especially when considering the cramped atmosphere that plays the biggest role in the film’s mood, the space design affects the movement and depth scale fundamentally while moving through the jam-packed narrow apartment where lived experience jumps out from every angle.

As for our heroes inside the boxes, we watch the mother who struggles to find her way (in every sense) and the father who is not healthy enough to help her step by step sink into despair and towards an inevitable end. This intertwined vortex puts a nightmare experience in front of the audience that they may want to escape from (maybe by waking up). Although at first glance, Vortex may seem different in content and form compared to typical Noé films, it becomes one of his darkest and challenging films that he has ever made.

Raw Realism: Gaspar Noé’s Approach to Depicting Dementia in Vortex

Vortex is a film that is raw in every sense of the word, and that is its most significant feature. Director Gaspar Noé aims for authenticity in depicting the subject matter, distancing himself as much as possible from theatricality and striving for realism that can be encountered in real life. Without writing any dialogue, he entrusts the entire film to the improvisation skills of the actors. The entire design of the film is based on reflecting reality in its most unprocessed form. Visual choices undoubtedly serve this purpose as well. The split-screen technique, which is the film’s most noticeable feature at first glance, also serves this goal. Noé doesn’t want to create meaning through any narrative tricks or cutting points. Instead, we follow the (almost) entire film in two parallel frames that flow side by side. These parallel frames intersect, create opposing angles, or overlap at times throughout the film. Rather than creating a narrative within a fictional story, this formal choice keeps the film as close to documenting the passing time as possible, leaving nothing outside the viewer’s range of vision. At one point where the parallel frames overlap, we witness one of the scenes that best reflects Vortex’s destructiveness and darkness: when Stéphane suggests moving his parents to a nursing home.

Split-screen shot from the movie Vortex. On the left, Françoise Lebrun as Elle looks away from the window. On the right, Dario Argento as Lui engages in a phone conversation.

In this particular scene, the visual presentation displays a nearly seamless blend between the two frames. The left frame primarily captures Stéphane’s presence, while the right frame depicts his father’s reluctance to depart from his residence. Lebrun’s portrayal, caught amidst the heated argument, accurately depicts the rawness of the situation. Unlike other recent films, such as The Father (2020), which aimed to convey dementia through innovative techniques like Vortex, Noé does not delve into the internal world of the disease. Instead, the film focuses on the devastation experienced by individuals affected by the disease and the consequent loss of meaningful connections.

As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that it may be challenging for viewers to maintain a strong grasp on these focal points, causing some degree of internal narrowing. While the improvisational style of the film adds an element of naturalness, it also impedes the viewer’s ability to discern a cohesive narrative structure and fully developed characters. The gaps in cause-and-effect relationships and character responses ultimately result in a scattered film. While it may be debatable whether a film centered around themes of fragmentation, decay, and dissolution should be more carefully planned and edited, it is clear that Vortex struggles to come together as a cohesive whole.

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Last modified: September 24, 2023