Wednesday 25 May 2022

Vortex (Gaspar Noé, 2021)

During Christmas 2019, Gaspar Noé's festivities were cut short by a near-fatal brain haemorrhage, from which, happily, he made a full recovery.  Vortex, Noé's first feature film since his hospitalisation, can and will be viewed as both a response to that major life event and a radical shift in tone from the filmmaker.  While each Noé film from Enter the Void on has been notably tamer than its predecessor—and his latest effort is no exception to this trend—Vortex nonetheless delivers the sort of sickening punch familiar to anyone who's experienced Noé's previous work; only with this film, Noé takes the emotional route in order to serve his goal, a strategy that will almost certainly wrongfoot audiences accustomed to the director's visceral approach.  That said, the film has its writer-director's fingerprints all over it, and it could never be mistaken for the work of any other filmmaker; while Vortex sees its director cover new terrain—or at the very least, the same old ground in a novel way—it's always clearly identifiable as a Noé film.   

Vortex chronicles the final days of a nameless elderly couple, played by cinematic legends Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento (both of whose work was featured among a stack of VHS tapes glimpsed in the opening moments of Noé's Climax).  She's a retired psychiatrist—albeit one who, crucially, can still prescribe medication—while he's a writer currently working on a book about cinema and its relationship to dreams, which is exactly the sort of project one could easily imagine Noé tackling once he reaches retirement age.  Their daily routine, filled as it is with largely aimless pottering, betrays the quiet contentment of two people who have spent decades in one another's company.  Yet illness has begun to define both of their lives: he has a longstanding heart complaint, while she finds herself in the ever-tightening grip of dementia.  As she becomes more prone to erratic behaviour—wandering off without notice, leaving the gas cooker on, flushing her husband's manuscript down the toilet—he becomes irritated and concerned in roughly equal measure.  The couple have a son, recovering drug addict Stéphane (Alex Lutz), who tries his best to help, although he has many other problems to contend with, including trying to stay clean and looking after his own young child.  In a bid to make everyone's life a bit easier, Stéphane urges his parents to consider moving to a retirement home but, rather inevitably, this suggestion is dismissed out of hand.

The bulk of Vortex's already lengthy running time unfolds in split-screen, with each half of the frame devoted to one of the two protagonists; a few years ago, we'd have looked on this effect as just the latest in a long line of gimmicks employed by the ever-mischievous Noé, but here it feels like a truly vital component, one that firmly underlines the isolation experienced by both of the main characters.  In hindsight, it's easy to see how Noé and his regular cinematographer Benoît Debie used the medium-length Lux Æterna, with its liberal use of side-by-side images, as a testing ground for the much more ambitious Vortex, a film that proves quite demanding for the viewer when it comes to selecting what to focus on at any given moment.  As with Lux Æterna, much of what goes on in Vortex isn't particularly consequential, yet the film manages to instil a real sense of anxiety, one that's ultimately justified as the exquisitely desolate story plays out to its conclusion.  Comparisons to Michael Haneke's immaculate Oscar-winner Amour are both obvious and appropriate, but there's something more recognisably human about the jagged, messy Vortex, almost as if Noé is serving as the fire to Haneke's ice.

Vortex boasts two—actually, three—beautifully-judged performances, with veteran filmmaker Argento excelling in what is a very rare turn on the other side of the camera, while Lebrun, still best known for her outstanding performance in Jean Eustache's masterpiece The Mother and the Whore, is note-perfect as the dementia victim for whom the world rapidly becomes a hostile, bewildering environment, with her eyes relaying the terror she experiences once she is no longer able to recognise faces and places.  And while he at no point encroaches on the limelight commanded by the two leads, the superb Lutz manages to make the rather hapless Stéphane a credible, sympathetic presence.  All three of the film's principal characters are caught in the vortex of the title, which sees both memories and tangible, real-world content swept away.  As Brian Molko of Placebo—Noé directed the music video for the band's "Protège-moi"—once sang, "can't stop growing old".  Or, as Noé himself put it with Irreversible's final (or should that be first?) title card, "time destroys all things"; a full 20 years on from that brutal, pitiless film, Gaspar Noé's concerns haven't changed very much—but his approach certainly has.   

Darren Arnold

Images: Wild Bunch

Wednesday 4 May 2022

To Plant a Garden Is to Believe in Tomorrow

On today, her birthday, both the Audrey Hepburn Garden (a playground) and a bust by Dutch artist Kees Verkade will be inaugurated at the corner of Ixelles' rue de l'Arbre Bénit and rue Keyenveld - where the actress was born 93 years ago. The 1993 bust is a gift from Sean Hepburn-Ferrer to the Brussels municipality. UNICEF Ambassador Audrey Hepburn devoted her energy to defending the rights of children around the world, putting her fame at the service of the weakest and giving voice to their suffering. This playground is a reminder of the battles she fought on the behalf of children worldwide. There is a second cast of the statue in the park of the municipality of Arnhem in the Netherlands.

Symbolically, the two statues are found in the cities where she spent her childhood. The Mayor, Christos Doulkeridis, the Alderman for Green Spaces and Plantations, Audrey Lhoest, and the Alderman for Town Planning, Yves Rouyet, are happy to inaugurate Ixelles' new green space located at the intersection of Keyenveld and Arbre Bénit streets. Like the actress, discretion and elegance are combined to give life to this new green area. In June, a statue of 'Little Audrey' will be inaugurated in the garden of Le Louise Hotel Brussels - MGallery Hotel Collection, formerly Sofitel. 

Source: Rodrigue Laurent Press

Images: Rodrigue Laurent Press / Intimate Audrey