Vortex (2021)

vortex film review

Vortex (2021) Directed by Gaspar Noé

A giant, deafening step by contemporary cinema’s most divisive polemicist, Gaspar Noé. The relentless and outspoken filmmaker who, while still preserving his idiosyncratic, rugged and draconian perspective on life, sets aside the delirious corporeal violence to delve into the bleak psychological violence of senile dementia. Vortex is a dour assault on the stark reality of the incurable and wrenching cognitive deterioration that a significant percentage of the elderly population experiences.

It is not a commiserative drama with a methodical commitment to stimulating austerity with empathetic mercy, much less is it narrative cinema in the conservative sense of the word. Vortex completely eschews easy paths to a denouement with sympathetic succinctness, tangling with the unromantic complexities of life with an uncomfortable truthfulness that turns out to be evocatively transformative; devastating indeed, but the instinctive weight, the organic autonomy of the lacerating sensations makes it a taciturn alienation that subjects us to a kind of depressive torture to watch without enchantment, embellishment or falsehoods the doleful and hopeless days of an elderly couple. More than a film about the ferocity of a disease that obliterates your identity and everything you know, it is a cruel dissertation on the hypotaxis of two words dependent on each other, life and death.

The inclemency of Vortex echoes far more than any other film by cinema’s expert provocateur Gaspar Noé, not necessarily the most virtuosic or the most exaggeratedly acrobatic, this achingly austere work is as close to being the most radically different thing he has ever made as it is to being the most analogous. Gaspar Noé is a director in search of controversy, an iconoclast of virtually every kind of conventionality. The psychedelic, strange and vertiginous lexicon of Noé’s work has a protocol to follow, to devour your senses and make you synchronically woozy with a power of addictive sensations that you simply can’t help but feel. The brute force of Vortex is identical to that intoxicating incantation I just described, however here sobriety is the highest point in narrative and formal priorities, Noé lowers the revolutions of his hallucinogenic stage and with intuitive necessity enters a very personal field, which makes it the most intimate film of the controversial director.

But what exactly makes this film frustratingly languorous and powerfully unique in its kind? The hostile sense of reality of course, and I use the word hostile because earnestly the somber dictum of this film attacks the idyllic and religious connotations of a society that since childhood teaches us that faith is the only thing that will give you dignity and courage to face your final destiny, yet the obdurate and veristic atmosphere sustains its icy vision of death without euphemisms; hence, the impact is deeper and it has a very enlightening action.

To be realistic should not mean a simple act of provocation. Convincingly I would say that this film is neither theoretically provocative nor acrimonious in its praxis, it just portrays what it is. The ulterior motives of this production are far from ambiguous, after the tragic vicissitudes that the director of this film suffered years before, such as a life-threatening and abrupt cerebral hemorrhage, makes that more than seeing the film with a purely filmic perusal, we delicately see it as a union of ideograms that resonantly expel their meanings through the introspection that Gaspar Noé makes on issues that disturb him.

The relationship between his close experience with death and this film is fundamentally conveyed in the essence of the teleological language of life, the empirical gave Gaspar Noé enough tact to penetrate one of the most harrowing and vile neurodegenerative diseases that have no cure. Having lost his mother who suffered from senile dementia lends a vivid naturalness to the narrative, and personally, my memory could not help but make me recall all my experiences dealing with this damn brain disorder that has been heartbreakingly harsh in my family. So, connecting my dismal reminiscences with Noé’s was one of the most superlative and formative exercises in acceptance and resilience I’ve ever had.

It might at first glance appear to be a very individual film, exceedingly single-minded in its vision of aging and death, nevertheless the two protagonists of this film bring a personal value equally as enormous as that of the director, making a film that works emotionally through its empirical collectivity. Giallo cinema icon Dario Argento and the unforgettable hallmark of counterculture, post Nouvelle Vague cinema, Françoise Lebrun, play an elderly couple whose lives are drastically changed when the woman’s cognitive abilities gradually fade. Dario Argento is functionally as if he is playing himself, and that makes the narrative brim with an authentic personality, remarkably precise in acting nuance. Lebrun, in an excellent and commendable performance, seems to do little, but her conscientious method suffocates the walls of an increasingly lifeless home with gray, decrepit and gloomy reality.

The experimental decision to symbolize the blurring of memory and solitude through a fragmented screen technicality is the instant appeal of Vortex, then as you absorb its function the experience of seeing two distinct visual spaces becomes jarringly uncomfortable. A formal aggressiveness that affects your five senses, impelling you to merge your reality with that of these characters; the malicious effect of splitting the screen in two could actually mean a desire to fragment the space into three, two on the screen and one more in the tangible reality that the audience occupies. The partitioned language of this disturbing and peculiar force that exerts on us, makes the experience a psychological masochism that ultimately leaves you devastated, however the stringency of its ends reverberate in poignant emotions, heart-wrenching feelings, yes, but they approach our human instinct with unconditional sincerity. It is a tool intentionally used to agitate, to make an itinerant exercise of gazing at the audience, where due to the lack of a logical and balanced compositional space, you don’t know where to look. That freedom to observe where you want may obfuscate some, yet it is essential to make everything more thickly unsettling.

In Vortex there is no finale that gives dignity to the characters, no lyricism that romanticizes the last phase of life, it snatches away the spiritual principles and values of theology and concentrates on the experience of life and the tangibility of the events within it. Perhaps it is a film that defies both our conception of death and cinema, in an existentialist parlance rightly pronounced with tempestuous severity. C’est du cinéma.

Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.