Paris, the city of love. Sometimes the city of slow death. At the beginning of Gaspar Noe’s “vortex”, the camera descends from the sky, slides over the rooftops, over a water tank – and gets stuck in the balcony of an attic apartment. A new morning in Paris, across the courtyard, Louis and his wife Elle are smiling at each other in the two windows of their apartment. “It’s ready,” she says. Then there is a champagne breakfast on the terrace. This is how you can enjoy retirement.
Exaggerated views are more common in the excessive work of the Argentinian-French agitator Gaspar Noé. At the end of Enter the Void (2009), the protagonist’s soul leaves his body, flying through the sky, towards his rebirth. Despite the similar moves that both titles imply, Vortex is the counterpart to perhaps Noé’s best movie, but certainly the most interesting one to date. There falling into the yawning void, now the infinity pull.
“Life is a dream,” Elie Lowe said at breakfast. He replies: “Life is a dream in a dream.” In addition to a notorious tendency toward violence, the extreme transcendentalist Noé sometimes leans toward minor metaphysical considerations in his films. These are usually reflected in the figure: uncut shots, wrong timeline, tracking shots.
As in all of his films, the final credits to “Vortex” in the beginning, the last picture must have made an impact. But this time, the headlines reveal another important piece of information: the birth year of the lead actress and her main cast. Françoise Lebrun, 1944. Dario Argento, 1940. And a strong sincerity: “For all whose minds dissolve before their hearts.”
The metaphysics of life and cinema
The two film legends bring their own story to film on a meta-level: Italian horror and “Giallo” Empresario Argento and the new mystical icon LeBron, star of Jan Eustache’s “Mama and the Whore”, and now a regular actress in Guillaume Nicol’s films (“The Kidnapping of Michel Welbeck)”. Once again, ‘Vortex’ elevates the metaphysics of life and cinema above the controversial previous work of Noé, who comes here with the most beautiful official art gimmick yet. The split screen, which he pulls between Lui and Elle after just a few minutes, reveals compelling reasoning over the course of 140 minutes, even if it isn’t always conceptually decisive. Although the couple can usually be seen together on screen, they are never in the same picture.
Louie and Ellie live in a different reality. While he was working on his book on cinema and psychoanalysis, she would wander into the cramped, cramped apartment, mumbling to herself, or staring carelessly at the wall at the kitchen table. Elle gets lost on the way to the pharmacy, and Louie is forced to pick her up from the stall in the corner.
In this way, the “vortex” shortens the two states of perception in its arrangement of the images. Striking play with form amplifies the banality of everyday life, the routine of marriage, which at the end of life takes only one pragmatic approach: get up, go to the toilet (Noé’s regular photographer Benoît Debie follows the two in the farthest corner of the nested apartment), the daily sorting of a pill cocktail, Nice touch on the arm. Her former drug addict son Stefan (Alex Lutz), who occasionally checks in with her grandson Kiki (Killian Derrett), is mired in the deteriorating mental state of his mother, a former psychiatrist, just like Lowe.
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You wait a long time for the usual Noé shock effect to happen, but “Vortex” saves the dramatic escalation. His film simply follows the tide of the demise. “I want to die,” Elle says in a clear moment. But it was Louie who died of a heart attack, leaving his helpless wife alone; Perhaps one of Noe’s sarcastic punch lines. (Although the director is the last person to claim that life is fair.) Or maybe it’s just a blow to the self-confidence of role models in his own movie: the man, a creative in old age, with a young lover, the woman loses touch with reality. Indeed, Louis Bildkadir should remain empty until the end, but Noé is not consistent.
(In eight cinemas in Berlin, all original subtitles)
The parallels with Michael Haneke, who also gave two movie legends big roles on aging with Love (2012), are obvious. A small but essential difference from Austrian Haneke is the fact of life that Noé captures. “Vortex” is not a showcase for the educated middle-class Parisian environment with its old-fashioned apartments. In Lui and Elle’s apartment, where books, CDs, VHS tapes, and magazines are stacked to the ceiling, life has left traces that the constantly troubled camera explores on its travels.
There’s another difference: As Haneke—also not without doubt in sarcasm—traces the faded romance, Noe never succumbs to the sentimentality of old age in his uninterrupted powers of observation. It is precisely through this emotional distance that Vortex reveals its emotional power. At the end of the trip, two lives can be packed into a few boxes: a final trip into the empty apartment, and a slideshow containing memories of a fulfilling life. The split screen closes again, uniting two people in death. And then, Noé’s last stunt, tilts the camera and turns the world upside down.