The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gaspar Noé subverts his history with quiet, compassionate ‘Vortex’

The meditation on aging, from a filmmaker known for sex, drugs and neon lights, is compassionate and ultimately devastating

From left: Dario Argento, Alex Lutz and Françoise Lebrun in "Vortex." (Utopia)
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(3.5 stars)

The cinematic worlds of Gaspar Noé are bursting with people who, in the pursuit of ecstatic highs, sink to abominable lows. The depths into which the French filmmaker plunges his characters are typically fueled by drugs and sex, bathed in neon hues and characterized by exhilarating camera work that swoops in, around, below and on top of his subjects.

Noé’s films can test the limits of even his most dedicated fans. In the 2018 “Climax,” a young boy accidentally drinks LSD-laced sangria. “Love” (2015) features exhausting, unsimulated sex — in 3D. Then there’s 2009’s “Enter the Void,” a captivating, 161-minute hallucinatory trip, inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, about a dying man looking back on his life.

But with his latest film, “Vortex,” the 58-year-old provocateur pulls off perhaps his most subversive move yet: creating a quiet, compassionate and ultimately devastating film about the twilight days of an elderly couple.

The film follows an unnamed husband and wife — played by the Italian cult director Dario Argento and the legendary French actress Françoise Lebrun — in their final days, as the woman struggles with dementia and the man’s health unravels. They share a charming yet claustrophobic Parisian apartment, teeming with books, papers and movie posters from their decades of life together. (He is a film writer and she a psychiatrist.)

Of course, with Noé at the helm, “Vortex” is a showcase for some flourishes: The signature visual look here is a split screen. This follows an introductory prologue in which we meet the couple enjoying wine on the balcony together — punctuated by another Noé-ism: a pithy, on-screen title reading, in all caps, “To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” Then, as a new day begins, the wife’s eyes open in bed and begin gazing around the ceiling, where Noé's camera is perched. (It’s one of a few scenes where Lebrun’s stunning, silent physicality shines.) A black line creeps across the screen, where it remains for the bulk of the film.

Our job from here on is to follow dual perspectives, tracking the elderly couple through what once may have been quotidian errands that now evoke existential dread. She visits the market, for instance; he clacks at a typewriter. In one of the most suspenseful recurring images you’ll see this year, a moka pot of coffee brews on a gas stovetop. It’s compelling to take in a film this way, yet you might also feel a bit trapped in these boxes.

There are moments of true tenderness, as when their son, Stéphane (Alex Lutz), patiently tries to help one or the other of his parents through their frustrations — including with each other. The split screen is bracing in scenes where the pair are side by side, and Argento reaches out to take Lebrun’s hand — crossing through the split screen — during an excruciating discussion about moving into an assisted-living facility.

True to form for this filmmaker, even in the face of death, his characters’ flaws and selfishness emerge. The husband has been having an affair for 20 years and is sometimes needlessly stubborn. Stéphane, though dutiful, is a recovering addict and isn’t fully trusted by his parents.

In a nod to Argento’s work in the horror genre, Noé creates an atmosphere of dread here, harnessing the dream logic of another of his influences: David Lynch. It’s tempting to call the semi-autobiographical film — inspired by both the death of Noé’s mother and his own recovery from a brain hemorrhage (and subsequent sobriety) — Noé’s most personal movie. But what makes “Vortex” stand out is its cruel universality.

In that opening prologue, the wife asks, “Life’s a dream, isn’t it?” “Yes,” he answers, “a dream within a dream.” Then a toast: “To us.” Those words could refer to shared memories or to what will be left behind when they’re gone: the messy compromises and delusions we all trade in — the things best left unspoken that prop up the fantasies inherent in all lifelong relationships, before the dreamer awakens.

Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains coarse language, drug use and disturbing images. In French with subtitles. 140 minutes.