Vortex (2022) ‘MUBI’ Review: Gaspar Noe’s Exquisite Filmmaking Elevates This Earnest Tale of Growing Old
Vortex (2022) ‘MUBI’ Review: A vortex of emotions defines something that is spiraling out of one’s control. After glimpsing the movie’s synopsis, audiences know that the vortex in Vortex is the lives of Lui and Elle. This film is Gaspar Noe’s tribute to the ones ‘whose brains decompose before their hearts.’ Other gems that come through over the next 140 minutes are that people are slaves to drugs and live their lives among them. That one hit hard, for it is visible in present-day society, not just among the aged members. Love is a theme that is present throughout Vortex, but the ode reflects upon how it can be a bad thing as time passes.
Cinema is replete with examples of efforts highlighting the aging process/the life of aged individuals. They are expected to be slow, with an abundance of focus solely on the sexagenarian/septuagenarian/octogenarian protagonists. The reflective study of these two characters is devoid of a background score, with sounds of footsteps, a typewriter, vehicles on the road, etc. serving as the only audio apart from the mundane but apt lines regarding the subject matter.
In Gaspar Noe’s Vortex, the couple’s exact age remains a mystery, but they are old and battling with the realities of their advanced years. The presentation of such a story in a film would be plain boring, but Noe raises the bar with his script and direction. He doesn’t just lay it all out there right from the outset, as his exquisite filmmaking elevates this earnest tale of growing old. The Argentine filmmaker effortlessly employs the classic show don’t tell method to let cinephiles understand why a particular character behaved in a certain way. I also liked this timing, as the audience is presented with these moments of realization throughout the film, not only in the first act.
I love the way Noe opted to present his primary characters. Lui and Elle appear in only a single frame at the film’s start. After an elongated sequence where they awaken in bed, he showcases the duo in two separate frames. Beyond a point, I remained confident that the frame for each character would remain set, but they exchanged frames with a smooth transition from left to right and vice versa. This was exceptionally well executed around the 45-50 minute mark.
Another positive thing I took away from Vortex is the astute camera positioning. This made it appear like a single black line didn’t just split both frames. If one were to eliminate the frame between the frames, it would not form a perfect image. Also, when one character’s hand crossed over into the other frame, the limb appeared longer than usual.
On one occasion, it seemed the frames were in sync; Benoit Debie left a clue by playing on the audience’s knowledge of what happens in the background when an object blocks out a ray of light. This lack of merging frames ensured Vortex was a film with two separate viewpoints of the same incident.
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Right from the song at the start to the choices in production design, Noe relied on cinematic elements to convey his characters’ intrinsic thoughts. Besides the seamless camera techniques, I noticed that each frame was filled with things to put the audience in the mind of the characters. The word ‘War’ image accompanied the scene where Luc was agitated at his son and his grandson, showing the battle he was fighting internally (to convince himself) and externally (to convince others) that he could care for his wife.
As the film’s central focus, Luc (Dario Argento) and Elle (Françoise Lebrun), particularly the latter, were impressive. From the innocent confusion etched on her face as she struggled to recognize her husband to trying to be helpful and ‘clearing’ his desk, she drew sympathy despite being destructive.
It was just chilling to witness how the mind breaks down first, followed by the body. Based on the first few minutes, one could even describe it as imminent with the diegetic radio voiceover and non-diegetic Mon Amie La Rose. This constant focus on each protagonist, their performances, and Noe’s creative choices make Vortex a good piece of cinema.
At almost 144 minutes, Vortex was screaming out for a crisper edit. A kind editor would have hacked off just 15-20 minutes to retain the impact. However, about 30 minutes could have easily been left in the editing room without compromising on a single element. This could be a concern as Vortex made its way to screens in an era of short-form content, episodic television, and concise feature films. Watch it if you are a student of cinema or filmmaking.