“Vortex” by Gaspar Noé in the cinema: In the end alone – culture

An attic apartment in a backyard in Paris, the books are stacked to the ceiling. On the walls are posters of films and political struggles that have fulfilled two long lives. Works by Fritz Lang and Godard, Renoir and Carl Theodor Dreyer. Slogans against the Vietnam War and for abortion rights. An old couple lives here, a man and a woman. In the early evening they drink an aperitif together on the balcony and toast: “To us.” It’s a last, brief moment of shared happiness before night descends on them, and they mentally and physically decay more and more.

Life, says the woman, is a dream. The man quotes Edgar Allen Poe and specifies: It’s a dream within a dream. One may find this rhetorical and pretentious, in truth it is clear and precise. The woman was a psychiatrist and knows about the power of the psyche, the unconscious, dreams. The man was a film critic and historian and knows that in the dream of life there is another dream: the films that viewers see in the dark cinema as if they were daydreaming.

In his new work, Gaspar Noé throws us into a dreamy depth that only films can achieve. “Vortex” is the name of the film that was screened at the Cannes Festival last year and has a softness, depth and maturity that is all the more surprising because you never expected it from Noé.

With films like “Enter the Void”, “Love” or “Climax”, Noé has dedicated himself more to a sex- and drug-obsessed, excessively dancing and self-destructive youth. Penetratingly circling cameras, journeys through physical and ethereal birth canals, deliberately provocative continuous fire on quickly overstimulated retinas often made his previous work a rather annoying affair – not to mention his excess of violence and revenge “Irreversible”, an almost traumatic cinematic experience of the noughties.

In “Vortex”, which turns to age, the immersion in the images happens in a very calm way, in the form of a creeping drifting apart. If you see the couple on the balcony in a joint shot, the picture soon splits, becomes a split screen, showing two films at the same time: They share the picture, but each now inhabits their own world. As she loses her memory, unable to remember names and faces, he tries to preserve the past by writing one last book – about cinema and dreams.

This is where weakness and vulnerability have their place

Just as the apartment is a film museum with film posters, DVDs and video cassettes, the separate picture tiles are also two monuments to two great figures of cinema. The woman is played by Françoise Lebrun, born in 1944, who once became famous with Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore”, one of the most beautiful French films ever. The man is embodied by filmmaker Dario Argento, born in 1940, the Italian doyen of horror thrillers. Ultimately, the completely improvised film is also a documentary about Lebrun and Argento, their way of moving, their age and the intimacy of their bodies, which they lend to their nameless characters.

“Destiny turns in the city, then it strikes,” says the film historian played by Argento. The sentence could have come from a film by the giallo master himself, which deals with the incursion of evil forces. Here, however, fate unites everyone it meets, including the old couple’s grown-up son. He has a young child, a mentally ill wife, money problems and a weakness for heroin. And now two frail parents.

While the divided canvas isolates the characters, it preserves the family structure in the phase of its disintegration. Once the three of them sit together for an unpleasant conversation about places in a home and the son’s dependency – he on the left, the parents on the right, the two picture cadres move very close together. The scene, which might as well degenerate into an ugly argument, is beautiful because there is a place for weakness and vulnerability.

The family members do not judge each other, remain loving in their dealings, have understanding for one another. Michael Haneke had already filmed an old couple dying in their Paris apartment in his Oscar-winning “Love”. But while the technical perfection of the staging remains in the memory of Haneke’s film, it is actually with Noé – the love.

Above all, “Vortex” is a stunning meditation on the lives of movie characters. If films are, as the man once said, dreams on the screen, then the life of the characters is just that “dream within a dream” that he and Poe keep talking about. With which the characters, with the passing of the dream, inevitably approach their disappearance. But also their transformation into memories, as they remain alive in us viewers.

Vortex, France, Belgium 2021 – Direction and script: Gaspar Noé. Camera: Benoît Debie. With Dario Argento, Françoise Lebrun, Alex Lutz. Rapideyemovies, 135 min. Theatrical release: April 28, 2022.

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