Director: Gaspar Noé
Stars: Dario Argento, Françoise Lebrun, Alex Lutz
As highlighted by Mark Cousins in his labyrinthine The Story of Film, Michael Haneke’s 2000 film Code Unknown is made up of a series of long takes that never touch. Where traditional editing techniques juxtapose scenes directly to engender a sense of natural flow, Haneke divides his sequences with momentary cuts to black so that each exists separate from it’s brethren. Portions of time and space suspended as though hanging on a washing line, or arranged in a Kodak carousel.
Argentine provocateur Gaspar Noé employs a similar technique here but for reasons both practical and – potentially – symbolic. His film also leans much further into the aesthetic of the aforementioned slideshow projector. Using split screen for a vast majority of it’s running time, Vortex presents two (sometimes three) sides of a story with action happening concurrently on either side of the screen. The boxes to left and right are rounded at the edges, resembling old home movies.
Such a tangible linkage to the idea of holding onto memories is darkly (even inappropriately) humorous given Noé’s subject matter. Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun play an unnamed octogenarian husband and wife – credited only as The Father and The Mother respectively – living together in a cluttered and claustrophobic Parisian apartment. The place is all tight corridors and stacked book shelves, indicative of two lifetimes of accumulation. The split-screen motif already keys us in to the idea that there is disharmony in this household and so it goes. Both of them are battling against declining health, though The Mother’s accelerating dementia is the more extreme.
The Father is a film scholar attempting with some futility to write a grand treaty on the connection between cinema and dreaming. If the two are as connected as he loftily decrees (and I believe they are), then old age and declining health must be recurring nightmares for Noé. The ‘vortex’ of the title is clearly our inescapable plummet toward the infinite; a trajectory of inevitability that his film dutifully follows.
But back to those cuts to black. Noé implements them on either side of his central dividing line in much the same way that Haneke did, but with some marked differences. Most obviously here they occur whenever one camera is clearly about to intersect with the line of sight of the other. But not always. Like the ratcheting of a Kodak carousel replacing one image with another, these cuts could be construed as literal resets in the mind of The Mother; the moments in her day when she arbitrarily loses track of herself. There are long sequences here – particularly in the first half of Vortex – in which Lebrun is documented tottering back and forth around the apartment with seemingly no end goal or awareness, while Argento gets on with more constructive endeavours over on the other side of the screen, usually in a different room altogether.
Rated 15 for ‘drug misuse’, Vortex is keen to draw parallels between over-the-counter dependencies and illegal drug use, placing it in the same didactic sphere as Darren Aronofsky’s emotionally battering Requiem for a Dream. In both cases the comparison is flawed and presented a little inelegantly.
A number of filmmakers have made their movies about the assumed Death of Cinema, and the interior of this Parisian archive feels like a metaphor for the same – especially considering the shrewd and a-typical casting that Noé has employed. A collaged sequence of images at the end of the film furthers this sense of emptying out, of the past being lost, of things once physical and permanent disappearing.
Alex Lutz puts in some fine work as the pair’s concerned but troubled son Stephané – and scenes in which he is present tend to move the piece forward, thanks to the verve of his relative youth – but in the main this is carried by the naturalistic, finely tuned behaviours of Argento and Lebrun.
Boasting a two-and-a-half hour running time, this might sound like a lot, and Noé is as heavy-handed as one might expect, but this also feels like his most mature work since his masterpiece Irreversible. Time is a continuing concern, but the machinations of the film are strangely hypnotic. With both key players shuffling through their separate days at a particular pace, Vortex takes on the measured glide of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó. Given that that film clocked in at a little over seven hours, Noe’s 2.5 suddenly feels breezy.
Noé’s recent run has been somewhat erratic and there are detours and choices presented here that might irk (including an undercooked and misplaced tangent on one of The Father’s affairs), but Vortex is successfully contained in the horrors of it’s daunting rooms and halls.
The mantra of Irreversible was “time destroys all things”. And, like a Kodak carousel shuttering to a white, empty frame, Vortex comes to the same conclusion with stark and quiet solemnity. Enjoy.