The most shocking thing about Gaspar Noé’s new movie is that it’s not shocking. European film legends Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun play a middle-class couple. A scholar (“Lui” / He) and a once psychiatrist (“Elle” / She), live side by side but rarely connect. This is mostly, but not entirely, because she has amnesia. There are references to infidelity, as well as footage of a man smeared with poop and a man ascending. However, most of what the characters do, when we watch them on split screen, is potter. This troubled romance, from the man behind I Stand Alone and Irreversiblemoving at the speed of a particularly sleepy snail, that’s part of its beauty.
In the Paris apartment where the couple lived, books piled up from the floor like stalagmites. The woman hummed around the messy space, sometimes like a bewildered green bottle fly, sometimes like a vengeful god. With a flick of her wrist, she transforms objects in the water into destructive agents. The husband, who has a heart problem, is writing a book about dreams and cinema, and as far as we can tell, it’s a wise-sounding waffle. The wife was definitely not impressed and what she did with the manuscript made me laugh. That is, until the husband saw what she did and started crying like a baby.
Vortex isn’t as fun or insightful as The Father. It is clearly indebted to Amour. But it’s in a different league from Still Alice. Great acting and tantalizingly improvised script. Above all is the impact of split screen. As your eyes flick between the two characters, you realize this technique would fit the story of any loved one torn apart by a cognitive warping illness.
And as the rules of the split-screen game change, the effect is more eloquent than any dialogue. In one key scene, the wife, nervous but alert, appears in both frames, during a heated argument between the couple and their related son, Stephane (Alex Lutz, who died for Johnny Flynn). The wife whispered that she was a burden, would rather die. The husband stroked her and said, “No, you’re with us – alive and talking… You’re not guilty.” For the first time since we met them, the pair can show a united front, and you’ll understand why “Lui”, for all his horror and disappointment, doesn’t like being left alone. separated from “Elle”.
As in Darius Marder’s The Sound of Metal, problems do not form an ordered queue. Stephane has an excitable young son, Kiki. Gradually, it became clear that Kiki was not in safe hands. Admittedly, the plot of the siren call about drugs (even the stuff your mom gives you to drink) gets complicated. But overall, Noe offers a fresh perspective on human frailty.
The film begins with a clip of François Hardy, 21, singing Mon Amie La Rose. From the second Hardy opens his mouth, we’re drowning in the tremors of life. Noé’s message: everyone (young or old) is hung by a thread.
The 58-year-old filmmaker shot this scene in lockdown. He may have broken it in a matter of weeks, but his two-screen fable is a real work of love.
135 min, cert 15. In the cinema