Argentine helmer Gaspar Noé’s latest feature “Vortex” world premiered in Cannes, where it was greeted with a standing ovation and critical acclaim. Variety spoke to the director at the Unifrance Rendez-vous in Paris this week about the film.
“Vortex,” lensed during the 2020 lockdown, follows an elderly couple in a Paris apartment. Shot entirely in split-screen, it marks a new departure for Noé, with a more meditative realistic ambience, combined with a transcendental undercurrent.
The elderly man is a retired film critic, played by Italian filmmaker Dario Argento (“Suspiria”), who is trying to finish a book about cinema and dreams, while looking after his wife, played by Françoise Lebrun (“The Mother and the Whore”), who is suffering from advanced dementia.
The more subdued, somber tone was influenced by the death of several of Noé’s close friends and family, his own near-fatal cerebral hemorrhage and the fact that both his mother and grandmother suffered from cognitive decline.
The pic is produced by Edouard Weil, Vincent Maraval and Brahim Chioua. The production companies are Rectangle Productions and Wild Bunch International. U.S. rights have been sold to Utopia.
Why did you choose the title “Vortex”?
It is linked to the idea of a circular destructive movement, a maelstrom, a kind of tornado that destroys everything in its path. At one point in the film we see the man’s notes being flushed down the toilet, that’s one kind of vortex. Later we see him on the floor, beneath a space weather storm image on the TV, from Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.” It’s about a maelstrom that creates a vortex. People come into the world, they live and die. In a cycle. Even at the end of the film the camera moves upwards and then swoops down again, like in a vortex. In life, after a thunderstorm, things go calm. But with a vortex, there’s an ongoing swirl of destruction.
Why did you choose to depict the main male character as a film critic?
I was delighted that Dario Argento agreed to take part in the film. He’s kind of an extension of me. Me 30 years older. Before becoming a screenwriter and director, he worked as a film critic. We talked about what profession the character should have and we said he shouldn’t be a director, but making him a film critic writing a book about film and dreams seemed to be a great idea. We invented this idea together. I know a lot of film critics including one critic who died last year. You arrived in his house and there were books everywhere. His apartment was an inspiration for the film.
Is the film also about the death of cinema?
It’s not a discourse about cinema itself. We filmed during the lockdown which conditioned the production. I worked with people very close to me. I also used posters from my own collection. We see books, films and posters about cinema. But if the character had been a political activist in the spirit of May 1968, we would have shown things related to that.
But it is true that today there is a bit of a mortuary atmosphere in the world of cinema, and also in theater and the other arts. People are buying fewer DVDs. You see less magazines on newsstands. For example, I was in Buenos Aires one month ago and there are only two cinemas left in the center of the city. The world is in a process of changing. We don’t know whether in two to three years’ time COVID will still be here or what the world will be like. We are in a period of mutation. I wouldn’t say that we’re seeing the end of cinema. But there are dangers for the freedom of expression. We’re constrained by the big American productions. Maybe small producers will continue to be able to make independent films. In today’s climate, I’m surprised that Amazon is still selling all types of products and haven’t yet introduced censorship. There is a genuine risk for the history of cinema. Now all the old films are being bought up by the big players. All the catalogues of the European players are being bought by huge entities. What happens to them next? If they’re not released on Bluray or given any screen time, there’s a risk that some things will disappear. 35 mm projectors are disappearing. Soon, people won’t be able to see certain films. There’s a clear risk that some films will be shelved through censorship. That makes me a bit afraid about the future of my films. Look at what happened with a title like “Gone With the Wind” that is accused of being racist. The big players will be able to decide what we can and can’t see, whether something is safe to be consumed or not.
“Vortex” is about the sublimation of death through art, for example the film critic dies but his work lives after him.
Only part of his work. Half of it is flushed down the toilet, down the vortex! At the end we see some of his belongings thrown in the bin. That ephemeral existence is particularly important for cinema. A book or a painting or building can always exist in a physical form.
But films are much more perishable. Most of the films in the history of cinema have already disappeared. Even some of my short films are more difficult to see.
Why did you decide to shoot everything in split screen?
The traditional language of cinema is completely artificial, based on shot, reverse shot. Each time, films are made in the same way. With this film I show two characters who are connected, but each live in their own space. I wanted to avoid the shot reverse shot structure and focus on the emotion on screen. It’s closer to reality.
“Vortex” has been compared to Michael Haneke’s “Amour.”
I liked that film a lot and was very happy that it won the Palme d’Or, but my film is not at all inspired but it. It’s just a film that explores the theme of dementia, which I saw with my mother and grandmother. Haneke’s film is more staged. Mine has a documentary style. I didn’t write any dialogue. I created the situations with them and then the action depended on each person’s sensibility in relation to the subject. Unfortunately, senility exists in the world. It wasn’t invented by cinema. It destroys families. Even during the shoot of the film, I was discussing this with someone in a similar situation.
What inspirations influenced the film?
There are no direct inspirations. But on the topic of senility I really like “Away From Her,” starring Julie Christie, which includes one of the saddest sex scenes I have ever seen. Another film that inspired me, in terms of its subject and casting, was “Umberto D,” by Vittorio de Sica. I saw it again a while ago. Those Italian neo-realism films now seem more artificial than when I first saw them. I’m also more and more interested in Japanese cinema. I recently saw Kinoshita’s “The Ballad of Narayama.” Wow! It has such classic beauty with its almost cruel view of old age. I’ve recently been watching a lot of Japanese films, by directors such as Mizoguchi. You find sentiments that are not often found in European cinema.
Vortex is a change of style for you. Do you have plans for your next project?
No plans at present. I like doing something different in each film. I have done multiple styles, 3D, split screen. Producers have suggested I do a VR short but I can’t see myself doing that, having to wear a VR helmet. I haven’t yet done a feature documentary or a fictionalized documentary and I’d like to try that. For example I love Fellini’s documentary “The Clowns.” It’s so free and joyous.