Remember how you learned in school about “man’s inhumanity to man”? If the director Gaspar Noé has a theme, it’s “the humanity of inhumanity.” Noé’s shock psychodramas confront subjects like murder, sexual assault, and what happens when a roomful of flex dancers go out of their gourds on LSD. As a filmmaker, he’s drawn to extremes — to the sensational and the depraved, the sordid and the evil. His quest is to hold that darkness up to the light, to flip the cruelty on its head until we see an echo of ourselves. Noé takes off from the wide-eyed impulses of an exploitation filmmaker, but he possesses a technical bravura — and a devious sobriety of purpose — that has made him his own genre. Call it transgressive transcendence.
Yet as a Noé watcher from way back, I can’t deny that the only two films of his that I find completely successful on their own terms — that I’ve ever found to be as powerful as they are ambitious — are his first two: the stripped-down, misanthropic Dostoevsky-with-jump-cuts diary film “I Stand Alone” (1998) and the sociopathic criminal head trip “Irreversible” (2002). Ever since then, the more that Noé has pushed his life-as-an-inferno aesthetic, the more laborious and less potent it’s become. As I said in my review of the “Fame”-by-way-of-de-Sade dance musical “Climax” (sorry to quote myself, but I can’t quite think of another way to put this): Once you’ve taken your audience to hell, what do you do for an encore?
In “Vortex,” his sixth feature, Noé at least turns a corner, devising a more organic way to explore his obsession with extreme states of being. The state he’s dealing with in this movie is old age — which, as Jed Leland observed in “Citizen Kane,” is the only disease you don’t look forward to being cured of. “Vortex” is a harrowing portrait of both the disease and the cure. It wants to show us the perils of old age with the gloves off, unsoftened by sentimental cushioning, and there’s no denying that the movie succeeds in doing that. In a sense, this is Gaspar Noé making his version of Michael Haneke’s great “Amour.” The difference is: There’s a way that Noé can’t resist hyping what he shows us. It’s not enough for him to lead his audience to the edge of the abyss. He has to keep pushing us to jump in.
The central characters, who are never named, are an aging couple living in the sprawling, pack-rat-ish Paris apartment — books piled everywhere, the walls draped in old movie posters — that they’ve occupied for decades. The man, played by the legendary Italian giallo horror maestro Dario Argento, is a writer who is working on a book, entitled “Psyche,” that is all about the cinema and dreams. The books in the apartment are mostly about cinema, and so are the posters — of “Metropolis,” “A Woman Is a Woman,” and so on. It’s a comfortable but shabby and defiantly analog setting; even the bathroom is jammed with books. The technology on hand doesn’t seem to extend much beyond VHS, and Argento’s stubborn scribe writes in longhand on legal pads or on an ancient small green typewriter. He represents the dying spirit of an age when cinema could be life itself — an alternate reality that people immersed themselves in and literally surrounded themselves by.
His wife is played by Françoise Lebrun, the legendary French actress who starred, 49 years ago, in “The Mother and the Whore,” the Jean Eustache movie that with its three hours and 40 minutes of raw uncut naturalism effectively created the spirit of contemporary French cinema as we know it. In that movie, Lebrun was an emotionally forceful and wounded presence, but in “Vortex” the character she’s playing is stricken and glazed, as she appears to be on a rapid descent into Alzheimer’s. Lebrun, eyes staring off at what might be another world, makes her an earth mother who has gone into a trance of dissociative memory.
Noé’s camera hangs out with these two, showing them sharing a meal with wine on the terrace and puttering around the apartment. Before we’re clued into Lebrun’s degenerative state, it looks, all too briefly, like an idyllic existence. But as they’re laying side by side in bed, a black line bleeds down the center of the frame, dividing it in two, and from that point on the film is told in split-screen images — a technique from the late ’60s, though Noé uses it in a flowing verité way that doesn’t attempt to be particularly tricky. Each character is tracked by a separate camera, which emphasizes their separateness from one another. We get it, but would have perceived that anyway.
Early on, the camera follows Lebrun out the door and into the street, where she wanders into several stores, and it becomes increasingly clear that she’s out-of-it. Her character is a psychiatrist who used to prescribe psychotropic drugs and now prescribes them to herself. Do they help or hinder her? We’re never certain, but what we see is a woman who will suddenly forget where she is, or who she’s talking to; she doesn’t recognize her own adult son. I’ve always had an issue with Alzheimer’s films — I think it’s hard to relate to how the main characters recede not just from their loved ones but from the audience, a dramatic problem solved, arrestingly, in “The Father.”
In this case, however, Noé is too outré a filmmaker to be making some transporting fable of dementia and loss. Lebrun’s connection to others has been severed, but the real chaos is the reaction to it — the way that Argento’s set-in-his-ways intellectual, even as he acknowledges her decline, doesn’t want to let go of her, or the home they share. Lebrun, in her stupor, is playing something out; she throws out the most recent pages of Argento’s manuscript, as if she never wanted him to be writing it. He, we learn, has been carrying on a longstanding love affair, and that’s a structure that he counts on. “Vortex,” like every Gaspar Noé film, is a horror movie, and in this case it’s about what happens when essential life structure falls apart.
It takes audacity to make a drama that invites immediate comparison to “Amour,” since that movie was a masterpiece. I wouldn’t mind so much if “Vortex” did something different, but about the only thing Noé has up his sleeve is his desire to rub our noses in the acrid sting of death. “Vortex” is subtle and deliberate, until it isn’t. Did we really need the couple’s divorced son (Alex Lutz), who appears to be a voice of quiet sanity, to be mired in his own drug demons? It’s not implausible, exactly, but it’s a piling on of problems that aren’t wholly integrated into the story. Argento watches a piece of film on television (it’s the extraordinary POV coffin sequence from Carl Th. Dreyer’s “Vampyr”), but when he suffers a sudden health cataclysm, it’s too much. And when Lebrun faces down what amounts to a toilet bowl of death, what you mostly feel is Noé’s exploitation-film desire to revel in the godless devastation of it all. “Vortex” doesn’t let us off the hook. Gaspar Noé never does. But if he did, he might transcend his “Behold, you will know the dark side” brand.