‘Miracle of a film’: The surprising masterpiece you’ll only see at MIFF

By Stephanie Bunbury

Dario Argento and Francoise Lebrun in Gaspar Noe’s Vortex.

People have been calling Gaspar Noe the enfant terrible of French cinema for at least 20 years, ever since his film Irreversible scandalised audiences at the Cannes Film Festival with an explicit nine-minute scene of Monica Bellucci being raped by a stranger in a Paris Metro subway. He was hardly an enfant even then, terrible or otherwise, at the age of 38.

The label stuck, however; it is still being bandied about now by critics astonished that anyone as consistently shocking as Noe – and all his films until now have been openly out to frighten the horses in one way or another, whether by showing erect penises in action or graphic scenes of abortion – could have made a film as sober and humane as his latest, Vortex.

The sober intensity of Vortex has not been universally loved – Variety’s Owen Gleiberman accused the filmmaker of wanting to “rub our noses in the acrid sting of death” – but both fans of his defiantly filthy earlier work and those for whom Noe was simply a “no” have heaped praise on his fearless account of decrepitude and death. Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) set the benchmark with a much-quoted review on Twitter that declared Vortex an “absolute masterpiece” and “a miracle of a film” and went on to describe it as “an honest film, as free of cynicism as it is of sentimentality – deeply humanist, overrun with genuine empathy and feeling”. Critics marvelled at “Noe’s finest and most thoughtful work”; the word that cropped up most often in reviews has been “maturity”. All those outrages led – somehow – to this master work.

Vortex is about a very elderly couple dealing with dementia. Dario Argento, the director of extravagant horror films such as Suspiria, plays the character simply referred to as He. Veteran French actress Francoise Lebrun plays Her, a one-time psychiatrist wide-eyed with fear in a universe that has seemingly gone crazy around her. Comedian Alex Lutz plays their son, a recovering addict wholly unequal to making choices for his parents, let alone carrying them out. The fact that Gaspar Noe could have made it has been as much a talking point as the film itself, which confronts the pain of losing a partner or parent to dementia with the same flinty frankness he has brought in the past to sex, drugs and the seediest kind of rock’n’roll.

French cinema’s enfant terrible: Gaspar Noe.Credit:Urs Flueeler/Keystone via AP

Gaspar Noe was born in Argentina to a family of artists and intellectuals. They moved to France when he was a child. As a filmmaker, he is identified with the so-called New French Extremity, a generation of filmmakers who hit their collective stride in the ’90s, including Leos Carax, Catherine Breillat and Virginie Despentes. Noe’s wife and producing partner Lucile Hadžihalilović, whose bizarre film about an imprisoned child with teeth made of ice, Earwig, is showing in this year’s MIFF, could be bracketed with them, although probably none of them would especially want to be bracketed with anyone.

Noe denies the label; they are just people with taste who wanted to make “sulphurous” work and were able to get public funding to do it. “You can film butts, an erect cock – it’s not going to shock anyone in France,” he told The Guardian. “As soon as people see a cock in the UK or the US, they think they’ve seen the devil. It’s impressive how uptight they are.”

This is how bad-boy reputations are made. However, in person, Noe is thoughtful, approachable and genial, even less terrible an enfant than his new film suggests. We meet at the Locarno Film Festival, the film’s second stop on a tour of European festivals that began in Cannes. He says he is a great one for crying in films and is suspicious of anyone who admits not having cried in this one. “I made a melodrama and I wanted people to cry … I cry a lot in my life.”

How many bank robberies are there in this world? … But how many movies are about bank robberies? I can’t say, but that is a genre I hate.

Vortex grew out of an idea he has been carrying with him since his own mother died with dementia several years ago. “I know how much I cried when she died.”

At the time, he found comfort in Michael Haneke’s film Amour, which won the Palme D’Or in Cannes in 2012. Then he wondered why there were so few films like it. “OK, there is now The Father and Far from Here, but in terms of the situation’s relevance to everyday life, there should be a hundred times more. How many bank robberies are there in this world? Maybe one every two years. But how many movies are about bank robberies? I can’t say, but that is a genre I hate.”

His chance to help redress the balance came with COVID. “I think what triggered it was that you could not make a film happening in nightclubs or parties. Big groups of people were forbidden.” His last film, Climax, revolved around a dance school’s wrap party where someone spikes the punch with LSD and a horror show of rape and murder ensues. “All the producers were saying ‘Do you have an idea for two people in a single space?’ And I had this idea that I had been carrying for years, of getting lost in the maze that is your mind. I know this subject very well. It just depended very much on who was going to play the roles.”

Dario Argento and Francoise Lebrun in Vortex.

Once again, COVID proved the project’s friend. Dario Argento was expecting to make his own film that summer, but the production company Wild Bunch – also Noe’s producers – decided to postpone it. “They weren’t ready and I said great, I can go to him and maybe convince him to be in my movie. I was told he liked my previous movies, but it was not evident at all that he would say yes.”

Argento is 81. He had never acted before. Noe wanted, moreover, the whole film to be improvised. At the time, he didn’t even know if Argento could speak French, let alone improvise in it; as it turned out, he could. “What I told him was that he is the great director, that he knows how to create a character. ‘You are going to direct yourself and do your best.’”

That suited Argento, who was not keen to submit to direction. “I’m a director, not an actor,” he told The Guardian. “I don’t like being in front of the camera with people telling you what to say.” When Noe sent him some videos of people having heart attacks as background material for his most dramatic scene, he sent them back. “Saying: ‘What is this? I know how people die! Get the hell out of here with your stupid videos.’” As the greatest director of the Italian horror-thriller genre known as giallo, he has been making people die dramatically for decades.

By contrast, Francoise Lebrun had little familiarity with dementia. She is 77; her own mother was then over 100 and mentally sharp. “So she said no, I am not very familiar to these ageing diseases. Also I think she didn’t want to get close to it, because when you are over 70 you are always afraid, you know. But I had a collection of videos – documentaries, things I found on YouTube, some videos I took of my mother that were very touching.

“What I liked about showing her images of my mother is that you see some kind of permanent panic in the eyes. In one second you see the person and you say ‘Oh my God this person is high, high, high on terror!’ And it’s all said with the eyes.” Lebrun barely speaks; we can see her losing words in front of us. In real life, says Noe, she is highly articulate. “Extremely intellectual. Her use of the French language is much better than mine – she went to the school of politics. She composed something she would never want to be.”

Just before COVID struck, Noe had his own health scare. It was immediately after Christmas in 2019, when he had overdone the oysters, alcohol and clubbing. Just before new year, he had a brain haemorrhage. “It feels like you had taken poppers in the afternoon,” he says. “You feel dizzy. I said ‘Oh shit, this is not normal’ and ran to a bar.” The barman called an ambulance; his speed saved him. “They said I could have died, it was a 50 per cent chance I would die and 35 per cent chance I would be in a mental state close to the one of Francoise in the film.”

It was a salutary reminder of mortality. “I felt I had been catapulted to the dark side of the moon, but I came back. Also I had the chance to try morphine for the first time in my life, which helped me to stop smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. And I watched Gravity on TV in French on morphine, which was the trippiest movie I had seen in my life.” Noe speaks very quickly, barely finishing his words, but he pauses fractionally. “Actually, it was very hardcore, but I came off the whole thing without damage.”

Gaspar Noe’s controversial films (clockwise, from top left): Irreversible, Enter the Void, Love and Climax.

He went home, under instructions to stay home for a month, during which he planned to get through his pile of unwatched DVDs. Then COVID hit. His two-movies-a-day retreat lasted six months. “I had all these classics I hadn’t seen. Even Andrei Rublev I hadn’t seen. So I thought ‘great’.” But death wasn’t done with Noe: three people close to him died in quick succession.

“In a few months I had to go to three funerals and was around three corpses, so the presence of death was very much in and around me these last two years. So I felt it was time to do such a movie as this. Also I tried to avoid all the narrative tricks that would make it more exciting. I just wanted it to be very simple, almost banal, about what living and dying is.”

Dying itself is simple, he says. “I know people are afraid of COVID, but I like a French expression: if you’re afraid of dying, why were you born? If there is one thing that sure in our lives, it is one day the bell will ring.” It is ageing that is terrifying. “What people can tell you about ageing while they still can, it’s not a joke. In life, there are not two doors. There is just one door, an entrance, and a wall. When you are ageing you are getting closer to the wall. Then you crash and then no one is going to remember what happened.”

Vortex’s split screen depicts a disconnected couple in separate realities.

Simple though the story is, he has allowed himself a daring divergence of form: the whole film is shot with a split screen, mostly showing Argento in one frame and Lebrun in the other. Sometimes the two frames come together, with just a zip line between them; more often, we see these two old people going about their own business, he trying to write his last great work of criticism, she fiddling about with prescription pads, trying through the fog to remember how to be a doctor.

He had used a split screen on a commercial shoot for a fashion house and liked the effect, but he didn’t intend to use anything so intrusive in Vortex. “I thought I would maybe have moments with a split screen, but probably not. I just shot on the first two or three days some things with two cameras, in case I wanted to edit the situation for continuity. Then on the third day of shooting, let’s say, I had the material of the first two days and I noticed that with the scenes I had shot with two cameras, if I put them on the right and the left, were far more interesting.” And not merely interesting; he realised later that the viewer’s eye oscillates between the two images, back and forth, panning like a camera or a patient lulled by a therapist’s swinging watch. “You are hypnotised.”

It also makes narrative sense. “To show this disconnected couple with the split screen is normal, because the fact is they are not in the same reality. It is an artificial concept, but the artificial concept is easy to understand emotionally – after one minute, you forget about it.” At the time, however, it was instinctive. “It is the editing table that takes the final decision for you. It was just evident it was working, the same as writing an article. No one has to tell you. You know if it’s good or bad. When you film, most of the material is not that good. But there are moments that are incredible – and you recognise them.”

Noe doesn’t like to overthink anything. So he finds it hard to answer whether, at 58, his days as an enfant terrible intent on shocking his elders are over. Does Vortex signal a permanent change in direction, an end to provocations? “I don’t know,” he shrugs. It is clear that life plans don’t interest him. “Each time you try to do something – not new, but something that surprises you as the first spectator. If you can surprise yourself, you can surprise other people who didn’t come to the world to surprise people, but to enjoy the game of living. So yes. Maybe.”

Vortex screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Friday, August 12 at 6.15pm, and on Monday, August 15, 8.45pm at the Capitol Theatre, Swanston Street. Director in Focus: Lucile Hadžihalilović is also part of MIFF 2022. The Age is a festival partner.

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