Pin It
Vortex, 2022 (Film Still)

‘Cinema is so boring now’: Gaspar Noé on sex, death and his new film Vortex

The director discusses his new split-screen dementia drama, Vortex, which stars horror legend Dario Argento in his first ever acting role

Gaspar Noé wants to hurt your eyes, mind and heart. Told almost entirely in split-screen, Vortex is a deeply immersive drama about a subject most cinemagoers do not want to be deeply immersed in: dementia. While Noé has previously pushed the medium’s boundaries for personal mischief (for example, the 3D cumshot in Love), his formal dexterity in Vortex is to recreate the 24/7 terror experienced by a physically ailing husband trying to care for a wife with Alzheimer’s. Even if the two-and-a-half hour running time can sometimes feel like two-and-a-half years, it’s essential to watch it on the biggest screen possible – it’s ultimately a profoundly moving horror starring one of the greatest horror maestros of all time.

As the opening credits roll, Vortex introduces its two leading actors, both cinema icons, with the years they were born: Dario Argento (1940) and Françoise Lebrun (1944). The Parisian couple are in bed when a literal black line divides the screen to visualise their isolation from the other. From then on, Vortex is two cameras shooting at the same time, which is especially head-spinning when there’s a third distraction in the form of subtitles.

“You can be in the same room but not know how the other person is perceiving reality,” says Noé, 58, in the café of Picturehouse Central, the week of the film’s release. “It was a simple, graphic way of portraying their double loneliness.”

Before splitting screens, Noé was more accustomed to splitting audiences. Irréversible has a nine-minute rape scene, Love features unsimulated sex, and I Stand Alone ends with incest. However, in early 2020, the France-based Argentinian filmmaker suffered a brain haemorrhage and narrowly avoided death. “You feel like you’ve got bombs exploding in your head,” he says. “You cannot sleep. Everything hurts.”

After a lengthy stay in a hospital (he cites watching Gravity on morphine as a highlight), Noé decided his next film should be Vortex. “There was a point I thought I’d have to spend the rest of my life being luggage for all the people I was sharing my life with. I identified even more with the character of the old woman.”

During this period, Noé also lost three father figures: I Stand Alone star Philippe Nahon; director Fernando Solanas; and the father of his partner, Earwig director Lucile Hadžihalilović. “I saw three men I loved with all my guts die in a row. Deaths, funerals, all those things were around me for a year. Although the movie’s not autobiographical, I couldn’t stop thinking of my mother. I saw my mother die in my arms.”

Argento, the 81-year-old giallo director behind Suspiria and Deep Red, has rarely acted onscreen, but is such a gifted performer that he can even bring humanity to someone who’s a film critic. “Dario invented his character,” says Noé. “Mostly he’s being Dario Argento. He’s a film critic because he started his life as a film critic.”

Even better is Lebrun, though that’s less of a surprise. Lebrun, 77, gained fame in 1973 as Veronika in The Mother and the Whore, and the youthful vitality of Veronika haunts Lebrun’s half of the screen. “I discovered Françoise through that film,” Noé says. “Her final monologue is one of the most memorable moments in French cinema ever.”

Over Zoom, Lebrun tells me that she studied documentaries about Alzheimer’s in order to perfect her performance. “It took three days to get into that state,” she says. “It was quite easy after. But we stopped for a fortnight. At the new shoot, I began as usual, and Gaspar said, ‘No, your eyes, your walk!’ I had forgotten it. It was in the dustbin.” Although there wasn’t a regular script, the filming was extremely technical due to the split-screen choreography. “In the supermarket, I had to wait for (cinematographer) Benoît Debie to come, so I was restocking shelves – putting things here, putting the rice there – all in character.”

When I comment that it sounds like a dance scene from Climax, Lebrun responds, “I saw Climax in two sittings. I had to stop and wait for my blood pressure to go down. I told Gaspar, ‘I couldn’t bear more.’ At the end of Climax, when there’s natural light, not artificial light, I began to breathe.”

“The whole limitation of sexual drive in cinema, it’s turning so boring nowadays. People are afraid of shooting erotic scenes” – Gaspar Noé

Lebrun expresses pride that, in France, Alzheimer’s associations have recommended Vortex to families wishing to understand the illness. “After Alzheimer’s, I’ll do Parkinson’s, maybe cancer,” she jokes. “No, the next (film) is quite funny.” After some prodding, Lebrun eventually reveals, “Michel Gondry asked to see me. I have the script.”

While Vortex seems like a sharp turn from Climax, both are intense, Benoît Debie-shot dramas that mostly unfold in a single location. During its introduction, Climax even presents VHS tapes of Suspiria and The Mother and the Whore to establish a tone. “I’ve been spiked (like in Climax),” Noé says. “It’s a nightmare to be drugged against your will. But the moment the bad trip is over, you feel clean. Depressed but clean. Senility is much worse because you never come back from it. One’s induced dementia, the other’s long-term, biological dementia – a hole you can’t escape from.”

Noé’s other recent hit was Love – not so much when it was released in 2015, but when it temporarily topped Netflix’s most-watched chart in 2020. “When I was a kid, there were porn theatres and erotic magazines like Playboy and Mayfair,” he says. “As a teenager, I wouldn’t stop masturbating. I could masturbate two or three times a day. I really enjoyed it. It was part of the joys of living. I wasn’t drinking. I started smoking joints at the time. But mostly I was addicted to masturbation.”

“During the pandemic, there were no magazines. When a healthy, young boy or girl wants to have fun during the day and not study maths or history, what do they do? They try to find erotic footage to enjoy. The most erotic movie playing on Netflix during the pandemic was Love. So everybody was watching it. Millions and millions in France and America. I’m happy the movie exists like that. It’s probably the movie I’ve done that’s been the most seen.” He observes that 365 Days and its sequel were also Netflix successes. “People need to take care of their genitals.”

Isn’t he disappointed those viewers didn’t see Love in 3D, as intended? “Love looks great in 3D. And I really thought I was doing a sentimental movie about a sentimental subject. But you don’t do a western without showing guns. So I couldn’t do a love story without showing a penis and a vagina.” He adds, “The whole limitation of sexual drive in cinema, it’s turning so boring nowadays. People are afraid of shooting erotic scenes.”

Before Vortex, Noé made Lux Æterna, a colourful fantasy also shot in split-screen. Its UK release is forthcoming, the director says. After that, he’s unsure if he’ll continue with split-screen. “The best ideas come at the best moments. Once I know the subject, I’ll see how I can have fun with the language, or by finding new gimmicks and tools to make it interesting. Otherwise, you get bored of yourself.”

Would he do VR? “I’d rather do 2D movies and show them at the Cannes Film Festival. The cameras are changing all the time. A virtual movie won’t fit a new VR helmet 10 years from now. And if you do pieces for museums, they’re just shown in museums. And my audience is not a museum audience.”

Vortex will be released in cinemas on May 13