The director talks about his new split-screen dementia drama, Vortex, which stars horror legend Dario Argento in its very first acting role
Gaspar Noé wants to hurt your eyes, mind and heart. Narrated almost entirely in split screen, Vortex is a deeply immersive drama about a subject most viewers don’t want to be deeply immersed in: dementia. While Noah has already pushed the boundaries of the medium for personal misdeeds (e.g. 3D ejaculation in Love), his formal dexterity in Vortex is to recreate the terror experienced 24/7 by a physically ill husband trying to care for a wife with Alzheimer’s disease. Even though the two-and-a-half-hour runtime can feel like two-and-a-half years at times, it’s essential to watch it on the biggest screen possible – it’s ultimately a deeply moving horror starring one of film’s greatest maestros. ‘horror. all time.
As the opening credits progress, Vortex presents its two main actors, both icons of cinema, with their years of birth: Dario Argento (1940) and Françoise Lebrun (1944). The Parisian couple are in bed when a literal black line splits the screen to visualize their isolation from each other. From now on, Vortex is two cameras rolling at the same time, which is especially breathtaking when there’s a third distraction in the form of subtitles.
“You can be in the same room but not know how the other person perceives reality,” says Noé, 58, in the cafe at Picturehouse Central, the week of the film’s release. “It was a simple, graphic way to portray their double loneliness.”
Before splitting screens, Noé was more used to splitting audiences. Irreversible has a nine-minute rape scene, Love exhibits unsimulated sex, and I am alone ends in incest. However, in early 2020, the France-based Argentinian filmmaker suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and narrowly avoided death. “You feel like you have bombs exploding in your head,” he says. “You can’t sleep. Everything hurts.”
After a long hospital stay (he cites watching Gravity on morphine as the climax), Noé decided that his next film should be Vortex. “There was a time when I thought I should spend the rest of my life being the baggage of everyone I shared my life with. I identified even more with the character of the old woman.
During this period, Noah also lost three father figures: I am alone starring Philippe Nahon; director Fernando Solanas; and the father of his companion, Earwig director Lucile Hadžihalilović. “I saw three men I loved with all my guts die in a row. The deaths, the funerals, all those things surrounded me for a year. Although the film is not autobiographical, I kept not to think of my mother. I saw my mother die in my arms.
Argento, the 81-year-old giallo director behind sighs and Dark red, has rarely acted on screen, but is such a gifted performer that he can even bring humanity to someone who is a film critic. “Dario invented his character, says Noé. “It’s mainly about Dario Argento. He is a film critic because he started his life as a film critic.
Even better is Lebrun, even if it’s less of a surprise. Lebrun, 77, rose to fame in 1973 as Veronika in The mother and the whore, and Veronika’s youthful vitality haunts half of Lebrun’s screen. “I discovered Françoise through this film,” says Noé. “His last monologue is one of the most memorable moments in French cinema.”
On Zoom, Lebrun tells me that she studied documentaries on Alzheimer’s disease in order to perfect her performance. “It took three days to get into this state,” she says. “It was pretty easy afterwards. But we stopped fifteen days. At the new shoot, I started as usual, and Gaspar said: ‘No, your eyes, your walk!’ I have forgotten about him. It was in the trash. Although there was no regular script, the shoot was extremely technical due to the split-screen choreography. “At the supermarket, I had to wait for (cinematographer) Benoît Debie to come, so I was restocking the shelves – putting things here, putting rice there – all in character.”
When I comment that it looks like a dance scene from ClimaxLebrun replies: “I saw Climax in two sessions. I had to stop and wait for my blood pressure to drop. I said to Gaspar: ‘I can’t take it anymore.’ At the end of Climaxwhen there is natural light, not artificial light, I started to breathe.
“The whole limitation of the sexual drive in cinema, it’s getting so boring these days. People are afraid to shoot erotic scenes” – Gaspar Noé
Lebrun is pleased that in France, the Alzheimer associations have recommended Vortex families wishing to understand the disease. “After Alzheimer’s, I’ll do Parkinson’s, maybe cancer,” she jokes. “No, the next (movie) is pretty funny.” After some encouragement, Lebrun ends up revealing: “Michel Gondry asked to see me. I have the script.
While Vortex seems like a sharp turn from Climax, both are intense, dramas shot by Benoît Debie that mostly take place in one location. When introduced, Climax even presents VHS tapes of sighs and The mother and the whore establish a tone. “I was doped (as in Climax),” says Noah. “It’s a nightmare to be drugged against your will. But as soon as the bad trip is over, you feel clean. Depressed but clean. Senility is much worse because you never get over it. Dementia induced by one, long-term biological dementia by another – a hole from which there is no escaping.
Noah’s other recent hit was Love – not so much when it was released in 2015, but when it temporarily topped Netflix’s most-watched ranking in 2020. “When I was a kid, there were porn cinemas and erotic magazines like Playboy and Mayfair”, he said. “As a teenager, I kept masturbating. I could masturbate two or three times a day. I really enjoyed that. It was part of the joys of living. I was not drinking. I started smoking joints back then. But above all, I was addicted to masturbation.
“During the pandemic, there were no magazines. When a healthy young boy or girl wants to have fun during the day and not study math or history, what do they do? They try to find erotic images to enjoy. The most erotic movie aired on Netflix during the pandemic was Love. So everyone was looking at him. Millions and millions in France and America. I’m glad the movie exists like that. It’s probably the film I’ve made that has been seen the most. He observes that 365 days and its sequel were also Netflix hits. “People need to take care of their genitals.”
Isn’t he disappointed that those viewers didn’t see Love in 3D, as expected? “Love looks great in 3D. And I really thought I was making a sentimental film about a sentimental subject. But you can’t make a western without showing weapons. So I couldn’t do a love story without showing a penis and a vagina. He adds, “The whole libido limitation in movies, it’s getting so boring these days. People are afraid to shoot erotic scenes.
Before VortexNoah did eternal light, a colorful fantasy also shot in split screen. Its UK release is imminent, says the director. After that, he doesn’t know if he will continue with split screen. “The best ideas come at the best times. Once I know the subject, I will see how I can have fun with the language, or finding new gadgets and tools to make it interesting. Otherwise, you are bored.
Would it do VR? “I prefer to make 2D films and show them at the Cannes Film Festival. Cameras change all the time. A virtual movie won’t fit in a new VR headset in 10 years. And if you make pieces for museums, they are simply exhibited in museums. And my audience is not a museum audience.
Vortex hits theaters May 13