REVIEW: Vortex [2022]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 140 minutes
    Release Date: April 13th, 2022 (France) / April 29th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Wild Bunch Distribution / Utopia
    Director(s): Gaspar Noé
    Writer(s): Gaspar Noé

Stop scaring me.

The woman (Françoise Lebrun) at the center of Gaspar Noé‘s Vortex is steadily losing her battle with dementia. Her husband (Dario Argento) is a few years removed from a stroke and saddled with a bad heart that does him no favors when trying to keep a clear head as far as care goes. And neither wants to leave their home no matter how sensible doing so proves. She’s a psychiatrist whose lucidity has her believing everything is under control. He’s a film critic desperate to finish his new book and thus in need of their decades-old library collection of texts and journals. They continue to live in the past in such a way that blinds them to the fact that doing so will only lead to their destruction.

While death is inevitable, however, the pain and suffering their journeying towards isn’t. That’s not to say their son Stéphane’s (Alex Lutz) reasonable idea that they move into an assisted living apartment would somehow save them from either, but it would mitigate the extremes. His father going to his office to write while his mother leaves unannounced to get lost and confused in the streets (deemed dangerous by her husband in large part due to his having spent years chasing down their son in alleyways because of his drug addiction) isn’t a tenable situation. Argento’s character cannot handle the extra stress and worry of the hunt anymore and Lebrun’s character is one wrong turn away from being mugged and/or worse. Yet they endure, embracing the delusion they’re okay.

Noé was inspired to tell this tale by the increasing amount of people in his life who tragically found their minds and bodies disintegrating at such vastly different speeds that there were no avenues back to balance. He wanted to present that experience as candidly as possible, utilizing a documentary-like pacing and real-time verisimilitude that placed us into the harrowing circumstances these poor aging souls are fated to brave upon figuratively isolated islands. To really drive that point home, he also severs the whole into a split-screen of two cameras ensuring we witness each character concurrently regardless of whether they remain together for the entire scene. The camera flips when they pass and sometimes shifts to Stéphane depending on context. By the end, one half even goes dark.

It’s an intriguing visual device that augments the narrative nicely. To see Lebrun get lost and afraid in the supermarket as Argento tries in vain to call her before having to dress and go door-to-door to find her lends the ordeal an urgency and authenticity that you lose when cutting from one to the other. The problem, however, is that what works brilliantly at certain moments doesn’t at others. Do we need the split-screen when the three principal actors are on-screen together? No. Does it add anything beyond comical frames such as Argento’s arms extending from his side to the other when reaching for Lebrun’s hands? No. Like how so many “one-take” films get harpooned by minutiae filmmakers usually remove, Vortex becomes confined by its aesthetic device’s shortcomings.

I don’t care how good the acting is (Lebrun is wonderful, Argento’s admittedly uncertain handle on French lends the script’s improvisation a welcome honesty, and Lutz provides a resonantly poignant mirror upon his parents being that they must now rely on the son who used to only be reliable in his unreliability during his youth), watching them do their day-to-day routines and rituals grows tiresome. For every crucial bit of information (Lebrun “cleaning” Argento’s office by ripping his new pages in half, putting them in the bin, and dumping the contents into the toilet) comes two long sequences of shuffling around. Add vague subplots (Argento’s affair, Lebrun’s potential of drugging him with misguided prescriptions, etc.) and it sometimes feels like the filler outweighs the main course.

Some of that may stem from my luck in not experiencing end-of-life decisions yet. Those who’ve lived what these characters are living will surely find themselves lost in that minutiae because they remember it well and might even wish for it back. For someone who doesn’t see it as that catharsis, though, it becomes quite tasking. We’re talking about a two-and-a-half-hour film built off a ten-to-fifteen-page outline of believably mundane lives after all. Just because their health causes conflict doesn’t mean the underlying trajectory won’t remain rudimentary in its progressions or cyclical in its repetitions. The whole might have benefited from Noé’s usual trademarked provocations. Let Lebrun accidentally drug and kill Argento. Let his penchant for being distracted allow her to wander into oncoming traffic. Shake things up.

That’s not Noé’s goal, though. One could say his film is so bleak and full of despair precisely because he doesn’t go that route. He’s showing reality in all its messiness and humans with all their fallibility. He’s presenting scenarios that allow us to project our own intentions onto the actions of the characters (Lebrun’s inevitable demise can be construed as both a suicide and accident from the evidence Noé provides during what happens prior), reminding us that complacency doesn’t negate agency (Argento chooses to make lists of doctors and aides that can help them rather than hiring someone). While his messaging and execution are sound and the film objectively effective, I wouldn’t fault anyone for falling asleep before realizing it. Nor those rejoicing upon its end.


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