A spellbinding portrait of an elderly couple in crisis, the wife suffering from dementia, the husband unable to cope, in a film composed entirely in split screen.
I felt many strong emotions while watching Vortex, the new film by Gaspar Noé, an Argentine director who lives and works in Paris. As far as what the movie is about, it seems fairly straightforward. An elderly married couple in Paris experiences increasing challenges. The husband is a film scholar with some health issues. The wife is a retired psychiatrist who is sliding into dementia. They have an adult son with his own troubles who doesn’t know how to help his father deal with the deteriorating situation. The story sounds very similar to Amour, the Michael Haneke film from 2012, and the way it sometimes highlights how scary dementia can be for the person suffering from it, brings to mind The Father with Anthony Hopkins, directed by Florian Zeller, which was more recent. Those were both great films. But the resemblances are actually kind of superficial. Noé has crafted a formal structure that makes Vortex unique.
Almost the entire film is presented in split screen: two motion pictures side by side with borders, like window frames. For a good deal of the time, the husband is on one side, the wife on the other. She wakes up first and starts puttering around the house. Eventually he gets out of bed and goes about the normal business of his day. At first it might seem difficult to follow two images at once—the eye moves from one to the other to try to catch everything. Eventually one gets used to the technique. The man seems relatively lucid and talkative, calling people on the phone about a book he’s writing, and so forth. The woman goes out of the apartment and wanders into a couple of shops, and we notice that she becomes more and more tentative, looking lost and puzzled.
The split screen encourages us to value both subjective points of view equally, rather than favor one over the other, and I think that’s perhaps the most important reason the director chose to do this. The husband’s words and behavior are understandable, but we also identify with the wife’s fear and bewilderment, such is the incredible performance by Françoise Lebrun as this old woman struggling to find words to express her catastrophic loss of memory in which everything seems strange and somehow wrong. The husband, by the way, is played by the famous horror director Dario Argento.
Later, Noé introduces variations in the form. Husband and wife are sometimes in the same room—we still have a split screen where we see them from different angles. When their son comes to help them a little, and brings along his little boy, he replaces one of the points of view in the split screen, or the three of them are together in two different angles. And there are further permutations. The director sticks to this device to both divide and broaden our attention.
I suppose any film featuring dementia as a major element might end up being about a lot more. Vortex is thought-provoking in the best sense. We’re forced to confront the nature of memory and its relationship to identity, and the fact of mortality, which we so often avoid. In the end, it’s not the style or the artfulness that matters here, it’s the unsparing honesty. We see how even the most loving among us are so involved in ourselves that we can’t fully listen to one another, and we see that gap also in the eyes of the mother looking for some unknown key to explain her distress. The truth is always more compassionate than anything comforting we try to say. Vortex has that kind of compassion.