“It would be better if she were dead,” the old woman laments to her even older husband in the surprising new film by Gaspar Noé. Vortex, and makes no effort to disagree. Even though its title might have worked well for one of the eternally youth-obsessed director’s earlier films, here it serves as a gauge of life going down the drain. This close-up look at a married couple on the brink of the inevitable introduces a surprising and demanding new chapter in the career of the throbbing and flamboyant director, who is normally preoccupied with sex, drugs, and music.
Stylistically, the nearly two-and-a-half-hour film, which was shown as a “Cannes premiere” rather than in competition, is notable because the two main characters, a long-married couple hanging around in their crowded Paris apartment , were filmed with separate cameras. and presented simultaneously side by side on the screen; at all times, you can watch whoever you want, or both at roughly the same time. Sometimes they cross paths and intervene.
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Clearly, this is not the Gaspar Noé we know and sometimes love. This time he does not narrate his usual theme, youth, but old age and imminent death. As such, it joins a remarkable, and very, very different film on the same subject, the bold and shocking 2019 black-and-white drama from veteran Mexican director Arturo Ripstein. Devil between the legs, like rare unadorned or sentimental exams of old age.
Noah’s previous films are visually bold, aggressive even, but this one takes quite a different tack. The two main figures, a long-married couple, are played by veteran Italian horror master Dario Argento (The bird with the crystal plumage, Suspiria, Tenebrae, et al.), who is now 80 years old and looks very moody, and French actress Francoise Lebrun (The mother and the whore and numerous outings with Marguerite Duras and Paul Vecchiali), who is 77 years old.
Physically, everything in sight is old, not just the individuals but the neighborhood, the buildings, the books, the typewriter, all the papers and other junk in the house. Argento moves better than Lebrun, who seems like he hasn’t been out in years and moves around without having a clue what’s going on.
For his part, the man intends to work, to do something, but more often he complains or looks for a book that he cannot find or talks about something he intends to do. More than anything, he is overwhelmed by the enormous quantity of books that surround him in every corner of the apartment, although from time to time he finds one that interests him; He has been a film journalist and has books on Renoir, Dreyer, and Sjostrom on hand.
As separate cameras follow each of them on different sides of the screen, one naturally tends to ping back and forth between the two. They move slowly, especially Lebrun, and are sometimes sedentary. Cinematically, the concept reflects some of the split-screen techniques Noah has used in previous projects, but here the technique is constant, the effect very different, for very obvious reasons.
It is quite clear that Lebrun has lost almost all of his abilities; she is able to move very slowly around the apartment, but can barely speak coherently enough to be understood. By right, he should be in an assisted living facility, but Argento selfishly rejects the idea, no doubt believing that he is still capable of getting by on his own.
For a while, it’s unclear if Noah’s gamble is going to pay off. You get used to looking at the panels side by side, but if you know you’re going to be watching this for 2.5 hours, you do. you have to prepare for a long haul. Other people show up from time to time and the movie briefly hits the streets, but it’s still a very claustrophobic experience, one where you have to adjust like on a longer plane flight.
Still, the extended period we spent with these two provides an invigorating, depressing, realistic, and utterly sobering insight into what your grandparents, parents, and, one day, will have to face if you live long enough; Another way to put it is that what Noah confronts us is a universal experience. The jury can remain deliberate for some time on whether or not its two-camera approach brings something else to the table, although the novelty definitely adds an additional and unusual layer of interest.
The images that linger most indelibly in mind are those of Lebrun shuffling on the floor, clearly in pain, feeling completely powerless to improve her situation, and yet not being adequately cared for by her husband. Others try to help out, but Dad is a selfish rascal at heart. Both actors have exceptional moments.
You have to prepare to a certain extent to see Vortex and settle in for the long haul, but you certainly haven’t seen anything like it, either.