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

Gaspar Noé focuses his burning gaze on the spectacle of old age: the world of those who are about to enter the void. He brings a certain structural insight into it, which I think I have never seen so clearly. Dying is Split: A real-time split-screen experience split between the caregiver and the cared for. An old married couple, people who have spent a lifetime wondering which of them will die first and which of them will have to take care of them, find that during the terrible endgame itself it is not so clear.

Veteran director Dario Argento and actor, screenwriter and director Françoise Lebrun play a couple living together in a small, chaotic Paris apartment covered in a jovial clutter of books and papers. He is apparently a film-maker, or perhaps a writer, working on a book on film and dreams entitled Psyche; she is a retired psychiatrist. They have a son, Stéphane (Alex Lutz), who is the father of a small boy herself and is plagued by drug problems, money and marital concerns. The film 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 last moments of clarity. We learn that she suffered a stroke a few years ago and has since descended into dementia; lately, the rate of decline has accelerated.

Noé splits the screen into two, double stories running simultaneously, half showing Argento’s character rummaging thoughtfully around the flat, in denial of what’s happening: reading, dozing, clattering away on his manual typewriter, and also secretly leaving phone messages, like a teen in love, to a woman named Claire whom he has been miserably in love with for decades. Meanwhile, Lebrun’s character on the left side of the screen, with the impassive, leonine expression of dementia patients, wanders into the street without telling her husband, or throws away all his notes, or lets the gas precariously in a wretched haze of ignorance.

Stéphane drops by to see them, deeply upset by what is happening, and by his own inability to persuade them to go to a care home; this is a subject complicated by its own history with his psychiatrist mother, struck by the fact that he and she now live in a world of drugs, legal and illegal. Noé will periodically make a camera cut in one of the frames and resume from another point of view; occasionally the two scenes will overlap and create a Hockneyesque perspective dissonance. Bold, the medium is the message. These two people will never share the same screen again.

This is a film without the pornographic and psychedelic sheen of Noé’s earlier work, but those earlier photos had a recurring trick: pushing the audience to the brink of nausea by having them stare into a vortex of flickering stroboscopic light. In this film, death is the vortex: the dark focus, the pull of which grows stronger—and harder not to think about—with each passing year. And Vortex tells us something about old age, something a stern and high-minded film like Amour by Michael Haneke would not contain: death is chaotic, just like life. It ends with things undone and in a messy disarray. This is a work of wintry maturity and genuine compassion.

Vortex hits theaters on May 13.

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