Glasgow Film Festival 2022 Review: Gaspar Noé’s Vortex

Gaspar Noé’s latest feature Vortex is a quietly sobering, painful experience as it makes a drastic U-turn from the filmmaker’s prior feature film Climax. Delving into the devastating consequences of dementia, Vortex is a compelling and merciless experience – experimental but hugely emotional affecting.

Lui (Dario Argento) and Elle (Françoise Lebrun) are an elderly couple living in their cluttered apartment. Elle is crippled by dementia, the quiet woman’s behaviour becoming increasingly erratic and unpredictable. Her husband Lui battles his own health problems, but attempts to bury his head in the sand watching his wife’s condition deteriorate further.

Opening with the emotionally hard-hitting line “To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts,” it is clear that Noé’s emotional side will be on display throughout Vortex. Yet the auteur packs his expected stylistic punches – albeit in smaller doses – utilising a split-screen style, Noé’s often handheld style follows Lui on one side of the screen, Elle on the other. This approach is quietly absorbing as it delves into the day to day wanderings of the couple, slowly building a larger picture of Elle’s condition and Lui’s failure to manage this effectively.

Benoît Debie’s cinematography captures the cluttered French apartment in a manner that gives it a claustrophobic maze like structure – piles of books and papers everywhere, small staircases that lead to other rooms, and the circular structure. As Elle navigates the cluttered dwellings, it becomes clear that this is no fit setting for a woman in the advanced stages of dementia. Vortex slowly unveils the lengths of Elle’s condition from leaving the stove on to getting lost in nearby shops. The panic and uncertainty – and inherent sadness behind the condition – is conveyed with a naturalistic style, making it hit with the cumulative emotional weight of a sledgehammer.

The strains placed on family dynamics make most of the fragile emotional groundwork of Vortex with Elle’s brief moments of clarity and lucidity capturing a sense of the intelligent woman crippled by this cruel disease. Françoise Lebrun’s performance is at times, truly challenging to watch with the actress exploring the fragility, confusion, and pain faced by the former psychiatrist. Lebrun is complimented by a deeply affecting performance from acclaimed giallo filmmaker Dario Argento, who explores Lui’s own weaknesses from his health problems – a devastating heart attack scene is near unbearable to watch, captured in lingering dread – whilst desperate not to damage his bond with his wife and lose his happier memories, despite clearly struggling to cope.

Vortex packs an unease whenever a character is not on screen – we have a sense of dread as to why that may be so. Selective moments without split-screen lend powerful emphasis to quiet moments, whilst a devastating transition of a haunting image of an empty sheet has brutally sad connotations. At two hours and twenty minutes, Vortex is a lengthy affair yet it feels essential in crafting a earthshakingly honest depiction of the cruelty of dementia.

Quietly bracing and deeply compelling, Vortex delivers its emotional blows with a naturalistic sadness – further channelled in Noé’s unflinching direction and Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento’s devastating performances.

Vortex screens as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2022. Find details here.

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