‘Vortex’ review: A haunting portrait of dementia and growing old

Director Gaspar Noé has always made Marmite movies, priding himself on shocking and upsetting audiences with violent stories of sex, drugs and destruction in visceral packages. It might have seemed like Vortex could be different – but it’s his most terrifying film yet.

The story of an elderly couple – he’s got a heart condition, she has dementia – in the final weeks of their lives, Vortex is certainly quieter than Noé’s usual work, but its raw authenticity is impossibly unsettling. It’s a seemingly modest story told by a small cast, with French icon Françoise Lebrun playing the unnamed mother, master Giallo filmmaker Dario Argento cast as the unnamed father, and Alex Lutz as their son.

Lebrun and Argento are mesmerising and heartbreaking in turn. She shuffles around their flat near-silently, fiddling with the gas as she tries to make coffee, writing out excessive prescriptions (she used to be a psychiatrist) as the dosage for her meds keeps going up. Argento is chattier in his role, trying to keep his career as an author going as he takes care of his wife and his own fragile heart.

It’s painful to watch because the pair mostly carry on as if nothing was wrong. They’re not ignorant of the situation, per se, but we witness their decline as the tiny details of their lives are presented to us and we see how much harder everyday tasks become.

Noé makes the experience even more claustrophobic by presenting the whole film in split-screen, often letting Lebrun and Argento’s separate scenes play out at the same time. It’s incredibly effective, somewhat reminiscent of Anthony Hopkins’ dementia drama The Father, which instead used a poetic style of editing to throw you into the mind of somebody who is losing theirs.

But Vortex is much more suffocating than that film, simply because of how mundane it is. It will hit uncomfortably close to home for anyone who’s ever had to care for a loved one losing “their brain before their heart”, as Noé puts it in the opening credits. And with a runtime of two hours and 20 minutes, the seemingly gentle narrative is excruciating.

Vortex might act as a balm to some viewers who see themselves in this quietly tragic family portrait. But, if you’ve ever had even the smallest existential fear of growing older and dying, or watching this happen to people you love, tread carefully around this one.

Details

  • Director: Gaspar Noé
  • Starring: Françoise Lebrun, Dario Argento, Alex Lutz
  • Release date: May 13
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