“Vortex,” Reviewed: Old Age Has Never Seemed Grimmer

The French director Gaspar Noé’s new film, “Vortex,” is a relentlessly realistic horror story, and its primary horrors are the infirmities and indignities of old age. The drama, set in Paris just before the onset of the COVID pandemic, is centered on an unnamed longtime couple. The man (Dario Argento, a famed Italian director) is a film critic and a writer; the woman (Françoise Lebrun) is a psychiatrist who has dementia, which is rapidly worsening. They live in northeast Paris, near the Stalingrad Métro station, in a large, labyrinthine old apartment that has been their home forever and is stuffed and overstuffed and cluttered and clotted with books and tchotchkes and memorabilia and the teeming piles of papers in their home offices. The woman is increasingly unable to care for herself, and the man is increasingly unable to care for her; their lives are spiralling into chaos, their daily needs are going unmet, and their grown son, Stéphane (Alex Lutz), who has a small child of his own, can only do so much (and it’s not much).

The details of the couple’s maladies, the difficulties of their daily lives, and the emotional stress that they endure are agony to watch, and Noé offers viewers an unusual way to watch them. Almost the entire movie is done in split screen, with two square frames placed side by side (inside thin black borders) so that two separate fields of action can be viewed at the same time. The first marker of trouble comes early on, when the woman leaves the apartment and heads to local stores at the same time as the man is sitting at his desk and typing with two fingers at his manual Olivetti. She gets lost in the aisles of a small hardware store while he gets dressed and heads out into the neighborhood to look for her. The paired images cram the film with information and ratchet up suspense; they also de-aestheticize the movie, averting attention from the undistinguished individual framings and compositions and instead emphasizing the couple’s connectedness, the inseparability of their lives, their nonetheless indelible individuality, and the solitude in which they’re both trapped. (Even when sitting side by side, the man and the woman are seen in separate frames.)

“Vortex” is calculated and lugubrious, an immersive slog through incremental afflictions and unyielding emotional pain. It runs two and a quarter hours and, with its split screen, yields nearly twice as much time of trouble. Its view of the couple and others in their lives is clinical—there’s no subjectivity beyond what’s enacted onscreen, and the uninflected images mimic the conventions of observational documentaries. Yet the results are intensely suspenseful and relentlessly affecting. The movie begins with a pre-credit scene, a lyrical moment that comes off as the couple’s last glimmer of ordinary joy: the woman has prepared a light lunch for them, which they consume at a small, cozy table where they muse on life as a dream—and “a dream of a dream,” as the man says. Even the credits reflect the implacable reality of age, listing the lead actors along with their birth years—Lebrun, 1944; Argento, 1940; and Lutz, 1978—along with Noé and his own, 1963. The main theme of “Vortex” isn’t life but death—the looming presence of death and the time when it comes, either too soon or too late.

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The movie features an onscreen dedication—“To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” The sense of “heart” is both literal and metaphorical. “Vortex” is a film about the body outliving the mind, but it is also about emotional sensitivity outliving reason. As a psychiatrist who is no longer practicing, the woman appears intermittently aware of her mental decline, and she attempts, in her bewilderment, to treat herself by self-prescribing unduly strong medicine that her local pharmacist, knowing her and her malady, replaces with placebos. The man, while attempting to care for her, is deeply involved in his own work: he has begun a new book that he calls “Psyche,” about the relationship of movies to dreams, memories, and the unconscious. The man is, in a sense, involved in his own race against time; he had a stroke three years ago, has heart trouble, and takes a regimen of pills to maintain his health—yet his fragility is apparent. He is throwing himself vigorously into work on the book, but when he sits down to do research and writing she is alone and doing things that put both of them at risk. When puttering around the kitchen, she leaves the gas stove running but unlit; sitting by herself at the table, she mixes an indiscriminate batch of medicine in a glass and prepares to drink it.

The couple’s son, Stéphane, who’s about forty, comes by with his young son, Kiki (Kylian Dheret). Stéphane, who also lives in Paris, hasn’t been there in a while; he has troubles of his own. He’s a drug addict in recovery (it emerges that his parents had committed him to a mental institution for treatment); he works in the film business, doing some editing and other jobs on documentaries, but makes a scant living (and still asks his father for money). His wife, who is also an addict, is hospitalized, leaving him to care for Kiki alone. The best that Stéphane can do—and he does it lovingly, compassionately, and efficiently—is to find an assisted-living facility in which his parents can be together. The room will be ready for them in a month or two, he says, but his father wants no part of it. He still is working on his book, for which he needs his DVDs and VHS tapes, many books and magazines, file folders of photos and clippings—a hoard that would never be transferable to an assisted-living facility. What’s more, he has been having an extramarital affair for twenty years and is trying to keep it going. In short, he has the most dangerous commodity and most delusion-inducing drug of all: hope.

The harrowing suspense of the movie’s action is perversely ironic. With each new detail of frustration, humiliation, degradation, and physical and mental torment, involving hygiene and domestic order, toilets and sinks, bathtubs and doors, the dosing of medicine, the supply of food (and don’t ask what happens when the woman is inspired to tidy up), Noé inspires viewers to wish, above all, for the protagonists to be released from their agonies—to root for their deaths. For all its observational realism, “Vortex” is a message movie, a work of philosophical art that packs a grim view not merely of old age but of modern life over all. There’s a hint of Noé’s scathing perspective in a scene between father and son, in which they joke and despair over their shared dependence on drugs. In the film’s most remarkable scene, of a long and uninterrupted family discussion at the couple’s apartment, the elder man expresses a vain hope that medical science has a cure at hand for his wife’s condition while also admitting that he hasn’t contacted any doctors who he thinks might be able to help. Amid the wrangling, the woman has what comes off as a flash of lucidity: it would be better if she were dead, she says. Soon thereafter, she repeats to her husband that she wants him to be “rid of” her.

For Noé, medical care is a sign not so much of individual ill health but of a society-wide malady—of clinging to life for the sake of time rather than quality, of living more rather than living well. Throughout “Vortex,” the family’s connections with the wider world prove not only frustrating but absurd and useless. Social-services organizations and other institutions provide a mere show of civic virtue, concealing underlying problems that may be beyond solving. Functionaries and volunteers, full of good will and exhibiting sincere devotion, are nonetheless just part of the charade. Through Noé’s lens, modern life appears diminished; the streets are portrayed as dangerous chaos; despair is endemic; hope, a sad delusion. Even cultural continuity is something of a sham—the critic’s speculative history of cinema veers toward nostalgia, as do his collaborators at the office of a film magazine.

The couple’s houseful of memorabilia is centered on their cultural and political heyday, the nineteen-sixties and seventies: a poster for Godard’s “A Woman Is a Woman,” posters from the struggle to legalize abortion in France, slogans from the events of May, 1968. These images impose the sense that the era of such heroic struggles is long gone. Even the casting sets the movie in the dwindling days of a glorious past: Argento is the director of such classics as the original “Suspiria,” from 1977, and Lebrun came to prominence in 1973 as one of the stars of Jean Eustache’s masterwork, “The Mother and the Whore” (which, after decades of unavailability, is being rereleased this year, starting at the Cannes festival next month). Their performances are deeply moving; Lebrun, with slow and precise gestures as well as a keen, unyielding gaze, conjures the emotional lucidity, the heart, that survives her character’s mind. Yet the power of this performance only pushes the action deeper into the drama’s nearly nihilistic abyss of despair.

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