October 15, 2021


Red Light, Green Light with Gaspar Noé

What did Gaspar Noé look for on the critics’ faces when he decided, incognito or not, to sneak his way among them at the press screening of his most recent film, Vortex? It’s true, it didn’t last long, but that strange five-/ten-minute performance really made me think. Did the fact that the director “almost died, got sober, and made his most personal film” create any expression in the critics’ faces?

Few are those who do not have an opinion on the Argentinian provocateur. Throughout my teenage years in the 2000s, Enter the Void (2009) and Love (2015) were, together with Xavier Dolan’s early films, veritable flashlights that les enfant terrible would shine in the eye of whoever got in their way. But things are different this time. The neon lights have gone out; the wild music has died down; Noé’s new film is the drama of an old French intellectual couple who, with the first signs of the woman’s dementia (Françoise Lebrun, who delivers that stunning end monologue in Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore), leans back into a freefall, with nobody there to catch them.

Noé is one of those filmmakers who is truly in love with cinema; more precisely, one of those who instead of whispering or singing their love for film prefer to scream it at the top of their lungs. With him, every night is a nuit américaine. In Vortex, cult director Dario Argento plays a film critic caught in the neurosis of writing a book about dreams and cinema. That said, it is clear from the very beginning that Noé really lets himself go. Besides the presence of Argento and Lebrun, themselves living monuments, the couple’s apartment is closer to the book and DVD fair at Il Cinema Ritrovato than a home; Godard, Dreyer, Renoir, all at the hands of Argento – that is how Noé’s stand looks like for all the world to see, displayed with as much zeal as the fans who go around with their idols on their t-shirts.

And it doesn’t stop there. At the start of the film, in what is to be the final normal day for the couple, a black line comes between them. From now on each will have their own half of the screen, which, beyond the overused metaphor of being alone together, gives way to Noé’s masterful filmmaking. When the clamor of death kicks off, when things go downhill and the crack within the fragile couple spreads all throughout it, and only then does it become clear that the split-screen is not a cheap shortcut or a cute gimmick à la Pillow Talk (d. Michael Gordon, 1959). In the most fabulous moments, the two screens bite into each other, formally serving the idea of cannibalization, and then self-cannibalization, which undergirds the film. And the editing, which mostly imitates blinking, with brief – very brief – fluid transitions, translates the film’s strength into a painful, somehow sickly viewing experience where we sit by the bed of a dying person we do not know, whom we would like to say goodbye to but cannot. And we are standing uncomfortably close, a few millimeters away, as the camera breathes down Argento’s and Lebrun’s necks. From the very beginning the end is just around the corner, but Noé likes to play red light, green light with us.

And even that would be too simple, as Noé’s pessimism is incurable; to make time pass more slowly, the viewer is not coddled with a story of flawless love. At one point, when Lebrun’s character wanders in a daze around the house, Argento’s has a chat with his mistress – an invitation to take our hands off everything we have held close so far. But it would be unusual if Noé offered us models of good behavior; a filmmaker who dedicates his film “to all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts” knows that neither one nor the other can offer moralizing tales without omissions or lies. Paradoxically, half measures have no place in Vortex.


Translated by Rareș Grozea


Călin Boto

Călin Boto is the editor-in-chief of the cinema magazine Film Menu and the coordinator of its weekly film club. As a freelancer, he collaborates with several publications and film festivals, includin...

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