Gaspar Noé’s latest isn’t a brash, showy affair but a sombre, thoughtful piece that is no less distressing. Mother (Françoise Lebrun) and Father (legendary horror director Dario Argento in his first and – he claims – last leading role) are living out their twilight years in their cramped apartment. Ephemera from their careers as, respectively, a psychiatrist and a film critic, line the bookshelves and is stacked in every possible place. Father is writing a book about the relationship of cinema with dreams whilst spending more of his time fretting over his wife, who is suffering from the later stages of dementia. Their son, Stéphane (Alex Lutz) is an ex-drug addict who tries to help as much as he can but is faced with resistance when he suggests moving them into assisted housing.
Vortex presents us with the couple’s existence – it can’t really be called a life at this point – with the screen split into two 4:3 frames that show us the pair’s routine, or lack of. Mother wanders outside after writing a prescription for herself and gets lost in the local store while Father researches his book by re-watching old films (we see the ‘buried alive’ scene from Carl Dreyer’s 1932 masterpiece Vampyr, which is as metaphoric as you could get) and attempting to get hold of his mistress. Keeping the pair in separate screens, only crossing into each other’s lives occasionally, or as in one tender moment, to reach out and offer comfort, highlights a fragmented relationship and a discordant mind. It’s not a gimmick – it’s certainly not as showy as the forgotten slasher Wicked, Wicked (1973) – but evokes anxiety, particularly when Mother gets lost or when she decides to ‘clean’ Father’s desk, flushing his work down the vortex of the toilet.
The recent Argentinian film Nocturna Side A – The Great Old Man’s Night handled the subject of dementia with supernatural elements while Noé sticks to harsh and equally harrowing reality, blinking transitions replacing jump cuts. The film is dedicated “to all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts”, and Argento’s character observes at one point, “life is a dream”. It can also be a nightmare, and no matter how inevitable the conclusion might be, it’ll always be heartbreaking.
Vortex is in cinemas from May 13th.