Vortex Gaspar Noé (2021; Fr) Dario Argento; Francoise Lebrun; Alex Lutz
viewed Tyneside Cinema 17 May 2022; ticket £10.75
For my next trick…
‘Vortex’ re-enforces my feeling that Gaspar Noé is the master of pedantic literalism. Vortex is nothing more than a continuation of his stylistic cinematic rampage through different subject areas. The fluent shot accretion characterising his movies is put to the service of spectacle, and like most contemporary spectacle it’s empty amounting only to the creation of form without meaning.
It is noteworthy how so many contemporary directors have recently turned to old age as a source of material for their scripts. Old age and its physical and mental concomitants are not in themselves necessarily interesting. What’s interesting are the relations or ‘non relations’ that are part of old age: its inclusions and the exclusions.
Filmmaker Michael Haneka has made two films with old age central to their scenarios: ‘L’Amour’ and ‘Happy Ending’. In ‘L’Amour’ Haneka’s script locks onto the relationship of an elderly married couple, the wife in a terminal condition after a stroke. ‘L’Amour’ is a vehicle completely reliant of the expressive affect of its two protagonists (Anne and George) which ultimately defines the movie as an art house soap opera, worthy in intent, barren in execution. ‘L’Amour’ plays out the clichés and tropes of ‘old age’: the walking, shuffling round an apartment that is full of the bric-a-brac photos and art works that define the couple’s life – the sense of an end approaching – the faciality of old age, the wrinkles and self doubt and – finally the ‘end’ in itself. (all of which are featured by Noé in ‘Vortex’) L’Amour is a dull movie that does no more than play out the mechanics of its script.
In contrast ‘Happy Ending’ folds the painful final days of the disabled pater familias into the personal and business relations of his family. This situation has a dynamic that exposes the audience to both the hard unpredictable elements of ageing and the issues of falling out of synch with the times. ‘Happy Ending’ demands the viewer to give some thought to the critical issues and the dilemmas that can absorb destroy define a life as it moves into that time of the end of the body.
Ageing used to be considered unpromising film subject matter. But with ‘Alzheimers’ and other long term chronic conditions afflicting the old, the debate about the right to die, and increasing popular sociological and anthological interest in mortality, dying itself has been re-evaluated as having dramatic potential. It is a potential that largely remains unrealised in ‘Vortex’ which is no more than a transposed Victorian melodrama with a French high bourgeois setting that exploits old age and its concomitant vulnerability for dramatic impact. Squeezing the situation for its emotional value rather than understanding, ‘Vortex’ like ‘L’Amour’ is heavily dependent on its actors graphic simulation. The realist acting of its lead players milks the audience for sympathy. Noé’s objective is to emotionally manipulate the viewers, marginalising them as of spectators, directing their gaze upon the road to death.
I think there is something of bad faith in this. My feeling of ‘bad faith’ stems from the fact that Noé’s script is a one dimensional construct, a trap for his characters. The trap comprises old age in itself and to some extent he’s a conman exploiting the end conditions of life to deliver a fake experience to the audience that is capped off in the finality of death. Why does the script have to end in death? Because that accords with the mechanistic design of the drama. Death’s the easy ending, the conman’s ending because it is the cheap way out that gives nothing to the integrity of life and its unending demands on the spirit. ‘Vortex’ is a fake simulated stylised docu-drama which tries to justify itself in the name of realist literalist representation and poetic philosophical utterance.
Noé delivers ‘Vortex’ coddled up in a little psychology philosophy and metaphysics. Noé wants to say something about life: its illusionary quality, the vapidity of time, ‘The Man’, the husband is writing a book about Cinema and Dream, called ‘Psyche’. At the start of the film Francois Hardy sings ‘Mon Amie la Rose’ telling us life is beautiful but short. There are a number of blog like sequences, emanating from the TV or radio, spoken by psychologists referencing memory and old age. And throughout the film there’s reference to Poe’s poem ‘A Dream within a Dream’. But Noé’s trysts at poetico-litterary relevance connect only as contrivances introduced into the script to overlay the jejune monodirectional movement of ‘Vortex’. These literary /didactic references possibly indicate the existence of a phantom film lurking behind ‘Vortex’ pointing to an original idea that was more inventive more expansive in ambition. But this idea was abandoned to the simplicity of spectacle, surviving only as subtext. Perhaps it is glimpsed in the final sequence in the depository for the ashes of the deceased. where ‘the Woman’s’ life is relived in a series of photographs for her mourners. It’s too little too late.
‘Vortex’ is mostly presented in split screen format. Many of the origination shots are divided in half and presented side by side. The use of this projection device does something to accentuate the ideas of the isolation of the the couple from each other, and perhaps the world, suggests schizo relationships. But deployed more or less for the duration of the film, the splitting becomes simply a gimmick. It is exploited as a means of distracting the audience from Noé’s stunted dramatics and to disattend the banality of spectacle. Likewise ‘Vortex’ is frequently intercut with interstitial black frames breaking up the action momentarily. Perhaps these insertions that are meant structurally to denote….. something or other? Who knows? Perhaps even Noé doesn’t know? Perhaps it’s just another distraction device?
Ultimately Noé has nothing to say; he simply knows how to exploit a situation.