Directed by Gaspar Noe.
Starring Dario Argento, Francoise Lebrun, Alex Lutz. Drama, France, Alex Lutz.
Drama, France, 140 minutes.


Reviewed as part of Glasgow Film Festival.


After years of pulverising audiences’ nerves with his chaotic explorations of sex, violence, sexual violence and thwarted catharsis, Gaspar Noe changes track with the quiet, pared back domestic drama of VORTEX. Forgoing the usual deafening soundtrack and in your face visuals this tale of the damages wrought by old age and dementia is no less harrowing than his previous work. In fact, with its restraint and focus on a single-family unit this could be his most devastating film yet.


“DEDICATED TO THOSE WHOSE BRAINS WILL DECAY BEFORE THEIR HEARTS” proclaims a screen filling title card that kicks off proceedings before showing off a blissful and idyllic afternoon between Lui and his wife Elle. This quiet moment of reflection passes by all too briefly before we catch up with Elle waking up beside her unaware husband. As he quietly snores away the panic and confusion that passes over Elle’s face is all too apparent, clueing us in to her deteriorating mental state. Framed over a split screen, with each frame following the husband and wife separately and simultaneously, we bear witness to various forms of breakdown, whether they are mental, physical or in the relationship itself. Noe refuses to sugar coat events or raise them to the excessive, stylised heights in which he has made his name. As a result, this is Noe’s most universal and accessible film to date.


Noe is still on confrontational and taboo busting form here. He looks at death and senility in such a matter-of-fact manner without couching it in any comforting way or spirituality. This is a brutally honest look at old age and the looming spectre of how we deal with our final days, an event every single one of us has to face up to at some point in our lives. This makes VORTEX the film that will connect emotionally with whoever has the stomach to watch it. This is as tough as anything as Noe has made but at the same time it is his most emotional and tender film yet.


Surprisingly this is due in no small part to none other than Dario Argento. For whatever reason Noe thought that it would be a good idea to put the Italian horror maestro front and centre here with more seasoned performer Francoise Lebrun, it is one that pays off in spades. Onscreen for nearly all of the films one hundred- and forty-minutes Argento delivers a performance that is completely natural and believable, garnering the audience’s sympathy from the film’s opening scene. Exhausted and at times impatient with his wife’s condition, Argento’s portrayal of a man incapable of saving his wife from dementia will no doubt go down as one of the years most surprising and best performances. For curious fans it may lack the operatic ultraviolence and extravagance that cemented his place in cinema history but shows off a completely unexpected and welcome side to his talents.


As his wife Francoise Lebrun also gives one of the most impressive performances in some time. Her performance is often devastating and completely in sync with Argento’s. It displays Noe’s skill as director who does not need to rely on arresting visuals alone. The simple trick of the separate frames helps underline the fractured relationship that is already so convincing through the performances.


There is no easy out here. The quiet yet overwhelmingly emotional conclusion pummels its audience into silence. An impressive leap for its already distinguished director it also serves as an impressive reminder of the presence of Argento. Although this is not a horror film in the sense that either of these men are known for as an existential and emotional horror serving as an unwelcome reminder of one director’s mortality and as a statement on life and death from the other it is quite simply, and cynically in an ironic matter, unforgettable.


Iain MacLeod.


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