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Vortex review – Gaspar Noé tackles old age in a quietly terrifying death spiral

The Irreversible director changes lanes for a gentler examination of one's final years that still packs the blunt force of his best work

This quietly harrowing new feature from provocative enfant terrible Gaspar Noé, director of Irreversible and Enter the Void, follows the lives of dementia-stricken Elle (veteran French actress Françoise Lebrun) and her husband Luigi (legendary horror director Dario Argento, taking a rare – and spectacular – step in front of the camera) as they deal with her illness while confined to an overstuffed and deteriorating Parisienne apartment.

Noé presents the entirely of Vortex in split-screen, with two scenes often playing at once, allowing us to see, say, Luigi in his study, whilst Elle is in the bathroom. Sometimes the director allows the two cameras to film the same scene, framed next to one other, which has the effect of warping the image, and with it the reality of the film. Throughout, the few cuts that do come are interspersed with a sudden, single black frame, like a snap, mirroring the “break” one might imagine as a sensation of dementia.

As yet another European auteur with a penchant for provocation delving into the pain of old age, Noé completely avoids the studied distance of Michael Haneke (whose film Amour dealt with the same subject, albeit in a completely different way). Of course, Noé is one of the cinema’s premier maximalists: a man who despises aesthetic subtlety and whose work is all the better for it. And this is certainly a film that calls attention to its stylistic choices, though less so than his previous works.

Although Noé’s view of humanity as a whole remains cold and distant, his view of individual human beings is anything but. What emerges in Vortex is an understanding of the foibles and complexities of our protagonists (including their son Stephane, played by Alex Lutz), none of whom are prepared to deal with the situation at hand. What marks Vortex out as something special is just how deeply Noé feels his material. Where Haneke opts for a silent intellectualism, Noé’s vision is instinctual, chaotic and raw in a way that entirely suits the subject matter. It is also surprisingly soft and intimate – instead of putting his characters under a microscope and merely watching them burn, Noé washes them with a tenderness that elevates the film beyond its bleak premise.

Nowhere is this sense of tenderness clearer than in the space in which the film is set. Every nook and cranny of the couples' apartment is overflowing with books, records, VHS tapes and physical ephemera, taking up space on the couch and on the dinner table, representing not just a collection of stuff, but the real accumulation of feelings and experiences one picks up over the course of a lifetime, where every item has a personal story attached to it. No wonder Luigi reacts so angrily when, conversing with Stephane on a day where Elle appears more lucid, his son suggests they move to a care home, where they can take “some” of their stuff with them.

The thought horrifies Luigi, because for him, perhaps selfishly, these belongings are also how both he and his partner (he a film critic, she a psychiatrist) pick apart the strands of their life together as it comes to a close. The items represent choices and mistakes that come to mean something in your final years, when you have fewer decisions to make but plenty of time to ruminate on those you did.

As physical media gradually slips away from our daily lives, I wonder if the homes of my generation will ever look like this. My grandparents’ flat is much the same as depicted here – a constant overflow of “stuff,” much of it important to them and as a result important to me. And perhaps in the final moments of Vortex there lies another, slightly scarier idea: that at the end of your life, all of this stuff, all of your decisions and choices, amount to nothing. Somebody else will move in, and begin their own story. The cumulative effect of the film is like that of a sledgehammer.

Vortex is released in UK cinemas on 13 May.

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