Vortex review – Gaspar Noé’s latest goes gentle, for once, into the night | Cannes 2021

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In the final days of the Cannes film festival the guests start leaving, the crowds grow thin and there are empty seats everywhere at the bars, restaurants and cinemas around town. The mood is already funereal ahead of the red carpet premiere of Gaspar Noé’s Vortex – at which point the director slopes in to turn off all the lights.

Prompted by the recent departures of several close friends, and his own recent near-death experience (a cerebral haemorrhage in 2019), Noé’s extraordinary film unfolds as a tale of murmured terrors and nameless dread, creeping softly around a cramped Paris apartment like a cinematic Grim Reaper. This is not just a whiplashing change of pace for the tearaway France-based director, who customarily crash-lands on Cannes during its bacchanalian middle weekend. In terms of scope, ambition and execution, it’s one of the finest pictures he’s made.

The Italian film-maker Dario Argento (himself no stranger to shocking an audience) plays the unnamed Father, saddled with a heart condition and toiling over a book about the relationship of cinema to the unconscious that he will surely never complete. As he pads from his couch to his desk to the loo, his path crosses that of his wife (Françoise LeBrun), a retired psychiatrist who has dementia yet continues to write prescriptions that keep the household stocked with pills. These two love each other and care about each other’s welfare. But in old age they have become like a pair of zoo animals that happen to share the same cage, with each creature embarked on its own aimless laps of the walls.

Vortex’s premise and plotting stir inevitable memories of Michael Haneke’s Amour, which won the top prize here back in 2012. Except that Noé’s film is darker, grubbier, almost a 19th-century shtetl tale with its focus on hunched bodies and pained faces in dimly lit narrow rooms. It’s more formally inventive too. Noé’s big innovation is to shoot the entire thing in split-screen, with two handheld cameras trained on the protagonists throughout, even when they sit side by side on the settee or lie together in bed. “There’s that man following me everywhere,” Mother complains at one point and we can’t say for sure whether she is referring to her husband, the camera operator or something else altogether: the invisible presence breathing down both their necks.

Naturally there are no happy endings in store for these people. And yet Noé’s remorseless, stealthy progress is not without tender moments. Mother and Father want the best for each other and are, in turn, loved and cherished by their adult son Stéphane (Alex Lutz). It’s just that the film reveals love to be a pretty frail bulwark against ill health and the grave. Stéphane, no surprise, has problems of his own. He’s a recovering addict who now distributes clean needles to the city’s users and appears in constant danger of backsliding himself. He wants his parents to move to an assisted living facility – mainly for their sake, but also for his. “I can’t help you,” he admits. “I can’t even help myself.”

What Noé fans will make of this one is anyone’s guess, although one hopes that they’ll recognise it as a logical next step: the next big subject to tackle. In its way it’s just as scary as the stroboscopic fancies of old; a pitch-black midnight movie that makes much of the official Cannes competition look tame by comparison. Vortex is deliberate, pitiless and perfectly acted in a loose, improvisational style. It’s a film that goes out not with a bang but a whisper: with the shuffle of slippers, the creak of floorboards and the rasp of oblivious snores from the bed. Mother and Father are together but alone, each on their own journey, each confined to their own oblong frame. But midway through, sitting at the kitchen table, the woman asks her husband for comfort and he reaches convulsively for her hand, briefly breaking the thin black border that divides them. It’s not much but it helps, the most anybody can ask for, a moment of connection before we all say goodnight.

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