‘Vortex’ Movie Review: Gaspar Noé Depicts Hopelessness in Both Life and Death

Vortex is a deeply unsettling slow-burn that purposefully wishes to wear you down. Writer/director Gaspar Noé’s latest movie taps into a very serious existential drama with a focus on performance. However, Vortex could use some serious trimming and more focus in the right places.

Vortex showcases the impact of dementia on a family

'Vortex' Dario Argento as Lui and Françoise Lebrun as Elle holding onto each other while Lebrun sits at the table
L-R: Dario Argento as Lui and Françoise Lebrun as Elle | Utopia

Noé tells the story of Lui (Dario Argento) and his longtime wife, Elle (Françoise Lebrun). They live in their small apartment surrounded by all of the memories that they made together over the years. However, their own home begins to transform into a location filled with confusion and fear. Elle’s dementia continues to worsen.

Vortex follows the final days of an elderly couple trying to make the best of a bad situation. Refusing to accept meaningful help, Lui and Elle tackle their troubles with only one another to rely on. However, it becomes progressively more difficult for them to live out their normal lives.

‘Vortex’ goes in a downward spiral of hopelessness and inevitability

Noé often refuses to follow the typical movie rules, so it isn’t a surprise to see Vortex open with the full credits. However, it does provide an additional layer of meaning to both the unfolding story and what came before. Flowers and gardens are a frequent motif, speaking to the fragility and upkeep of life that will inevitably wilt.

Elle previously worked as a psychiatrist and Lui is an author currently writing a new book. He’s knee-deep in writing about the intersection of dreams and cinema, which has a clear link to Vortex. Many of Lui’s comments on the inherent connection between the two weigh on the statement Noé is making.

The couple has a dependence on a high amount of medications. However, they may or may not actually help their health issues. Vortex primarily focuses on Lui and Elle, although a couple of other characters occasionally come into the story – their son, Stéphane (Alex Lutz), and their grandson, Kiki (Kylian Dheret). These two characters inject a sort of momentary clarity into their relationship by confirming what is real and what is not.

Writer/director Gaspar Noé’s movie is heartbreaking and impactful but narrow-sighted

'Vortex' Françoise Lebrun as Elle and Dario Argento as Lui with Lebrun holding flowers in a red jacket walking into the street in front of a store
L-R: Françoise Lebrun as Elle and Dario Argento as Lui | Utopia

Vortex explores the somber inevitability of dementia in a way that will undoubtedly be compared to Amour and The Father. However, it’s substantially slower than either film, especially throughout the first act. Its depictions of mundane life without a narrative hook will alienate some viewers, but will utterly captivate others.

Noé captures this drama in a split-screen format that allows the audience to experience Lui’s, Elle’s, and to a lesser extent, Stéphane’s, greatest troubles. This also allows the director of photography, Benoît Debie, the opportunity to play with two separate cinematography styles simultaneously. However, there’s typically only action happening on one screen at a time and it doesn’t truly add a whole lot to the film.

Noé begins Vortex with the quote, “To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” He makes it clear that this is a love letter to those with this horrendous disease. However, Vortex is the type of drama that easily passes into the horror genre territory. Argento turns in a wonderful performance as Luit and Lebrun is absolutely stunning in a delicate and subtle performance.

There is a lot of talk that Vortex is Noé at his most mature, but it’s just as purposefully exploitative and disturbing as any of his other films. However, it’s certainly the most intimate and least visually over-the-top movie of his career. Vortex is an isolating and heartbreaking experience, but it has a narrow-sighted view of the meaning of life, death, and family.

Vortex lands in theaters in New York on April 29, in Los Angeles on May 6, and a national rollout to follow.

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