“To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts,” reads the opening scene of “Vortex,” Gaspar Noé’s 140-minute reflection on mortality. Utilizing unique cinematography with dual perspectives, the film immerses viewers in the lives of an elderly couple struggling to fight their descent into old age. Confrontational and raw, “Vortex” beautifully captures the experience of aging, illness, and death through its minimal dialogue and forceful storytelling.
Inspired by his own brain injury, Noé’s film follows a former psychiatrist falling deeper into a dementia diagnosis as her husband, an author, grapples with a worsening heart condition. Each occupying their own half of a frame, the screen cleaved by a black line down the center, the husband and wife go about their routines. This split-screen diptych presents dual perspectives on events shared by the couple, delivering a fuller story and ultimately letting the viewers choose what elements they focus on.
Noé’s use of dialogue in “Vortex” is limited, letting the couple’s actions subtly say the things they can’t bring themselves to openly discuss. While most people may feel compelled to sweep issues of injury and old age under the rug, Noé confronts this desire within viewers and within his characters by depicting the futility of holding on to youth. Privy to the relationship between a sentimental husband who refuses to leave his home full of nostalgia-inducing books and a wife clinging on to her lifestyle as a psychiatrist by prescribing herself medication, viewers plainly see the ineffectual desperation to prolong youth reflected back at them. In addition to commentary on aging in our current society, Noé makes several startling remarks about movies and dreams.
“Movie theaters are the best place to expose your dreams,” muses the husband, subtly breaking the fourth wall. Citing the privacy, darkness, and focused attention present in theaters, this attempt at conversing directly with the audience is sadly never developed further within the main narrative, a missed opportunity for Noé.
“Vortex” includes the oftentimes overlooked perspective of families and children in its discussion about aging, adding depth to the exploration of taboos around illness. The couple’s son, a father himself battling addiction and mental illness while trying to care of his own son, is tasked with ensuring the safety and security of his parents. The awkward and difficult debates about changing the way his parents live likely resonate with those who have faced the challenge of providing for people who used to provide for them. Navigating respectability, social norms, parental dynamics, and monetary issues, the couple’s son doesn’t do a perfect job in these conversations, and he shouldn’t be expected to. Bringing to light the tumultuous uncertainty of illness, “Vortex” highlights the universality and difficulty of aging and taking care of those who are.
Noé shows viewers the looming mortality facing humanity through “Vortex” and provides a candid glimpse into how that mortality drives life. A brutal exploration of malady and mourning, “Vortex” artfully grapples with a despair that most choose to push to the edges of their minds.