Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun star as an elderly couple suffering through dementia and ill health in Gaspar Noé’s latest outing, Vortex. The Argentinian director’s follow-up to 2019’s Lux Æterna is a typically difficult watch, subjecting us to the grinding indignities of old age, but it also a deeply moving study of lifelong love and loyalty to the bitter end.
We open on a crane shot outside an apartment building, gradually descending on an elderly couple, Lui (Argento) and Elle (Lebrun), enjoying an evening glass of wine on their terrace. Centred in the middle of the screen, the square frame is small and boxy. An black and white interlude set to Francoise Hardy’s ‘The Rose’ leads us back to Lui and Elle, now asleep in bed together. Something has changed since we last saw them on their terrace. As Elle stirs, looking confused, a black line imperceptibly creeps down the centre of the frame, dividing the couple. Elle rises while Lui stays fitfully asleep and now two cameras follow each character separately.
Argento, best known of course for his Italian giallo pictures, shines in his first major film role, bringing with him depths of pathos and anxiety. Lebrun is similarly outstanding with a subtle, multifaceted performance. She is at once a pitiful figure aimlessly shuffling like a spectre through their apartment, a frightened, vulnerable woman, and a purposeful menace, destroying important documents, leaving the gas on or mixing dangerous drugs into her husband’s glass of water.
Vortex’s central visual motif is also its most powerful, illustrating the gulf between Elle, who has dementia, and Lui, each frame becoming separate worlds occupying the same space. Occasionally those worlds intersect, such as when the couple’s adult son Stéphane (Alex Lutz) tries to bridge the gap between them, awkwardly crossing over into each frame, yet an essential space remains between them.
The irony of this visual division, however, is that Lui and Elle are inseparable. In moments of lucidity, Elle wishes her family to be rid of her but Lui is insistent that they remain together in the home in which they built a life, even as she unwittingly wrecks their belongings. Indeed, their house, crammed with books and the accumulated stuff of half a century’s worth of living, comes to represent Lui and Elle as a single entity.
The house as a site of memory in decline was also explored in 2020’s The Father, while the apartment was the entire world of Michael Haneke’s Amour. Yet in dividing space up as Noé has here, Vortex uniquely portrays the self and memory, through the home, as paradoxically fractured yet unified. The result is a film that is often difficult to watch, but one which determinedly avoids sentimentality to instead depict what it really means to dedicate one’s life to another.