The State of the Noé
With his latest films, 'Vortex' and 'Lux Æterna,' opening in successive weeks, it's time to check in on one of modern cinema's most committed provocateurs.
LE TEMPS DETRUIT TOUT. “Time destroys everything.”
Those words bookend Gaspar Noé’s notorious 2002 film Irréversible, as the first spoken line of dialogue and in bold titles at the very end, when Noé’s rape-revenge narrative, told in backwards chronology, concludes/begins. The long list of things that make the film so devastatingly effective (and borderline unwatchable) usually starts with its visceral effects, like the swirling camera and low-frequency sound design of its descent into an S&M club or a nine-minute rape scene shot from a fixed angle in a pedestrian tunnel. But it’s that overarching progression from death to life, from destruction to creation, that’s most unnerving, because Noé is using the magic of cinema to do what time itself resolutely will not. There’s no crueler cut in cinema, to my mind, than the one where a battered body is wheeled into an ambulance and the next shot is Monica Bellucci, the victim, in a party dress.
The theme resurfaces in Noé’s latest film, Vortex, which concerns a longtime couple facing dementia and opens with a dedication “to all those whose brains decompose before their hearts.” Time is again the villain, except now Noé has not reversed it but extenuated it, making us feel the minutes pass as a couple tiptoes inexorably toward the oblivion that awaits us all. Through an accident of distribution that’s amusingly Irréversible-esque, Vortex was released last week while Noé’s previous work, the 52-minute semi-experimental film Lux Æterna, comes out this week. Seen together, the two films are a fascinating window into a director whose obsession with destruction persists, but whose style keeps evolving, even as he often circles back to elements of his previous work. Time has only changed him in increments.
Vortex seems like a more radical departure than it actually is, though it won’t induce seizures or motion sickness, which must count as Bergman-esque austerity in Noé-land. His one major stylistic innovation, carried over from Lux Æterna, is a split-screen device that dominates the entire film in much the same way Mike Figgis’ early-aughts digital experiments, 2000’s Timecode and 2001’s Hotel, sought to reinvent a medium that was inching away from celluloid. But Noé’s rationale is more straightforward and unpretentious than trying to upend the form: By splitting the screen in two, he simply and powerfully reflects the ruptured connection between an elderly couple who have loved each other for untold decades. Even when one wanders into the other’s frame, the separation is permanent. What’s done cannot be undone.
After an idyllic scene where the unnamed couple shares a bottle of wine on the terrace of their cramped Paris flat, Noé introduces the split screen, in their bedroom. While the husband, played by Italian giallo maestro Dario Argento, sleeps quietly in a fetal ball, the wife, played by Françoise Lebrun (best known for her role in Jean Eustache’s 1973 landmark The Mother and the Whore), scans her eyes around the ceiling, searching for some sense of orientation. (For the sake of convenience, I’ll refer to the characters by the actors’ last names, rather than “Father” and “Mother,” as they’re officially credited.) We learn later that Lebrun has been experiencing cognitive episodes for a while, but now she seems to have dropped past the point of no return.
In the first of several such horrifying sequences, we watch Lebrun wander off into the courtyard with a bag of kitchen trash, then continue wandering down the street before listlessly entering a general store—ostensibly for toys for her grandson, but she forgets that the moment she walks down a space as labyrinthine as “The Rectum” in Irréversible. Sipping an espresso in his office, Argento is late to realize the door to the apartment is open. And so, after he tries and fails to reach her cellphone, he goes out searching, asking neighbors and shopkeepers until he finally finds her–and their frames intersect. Back home, he expresses his terror and fury over the incident, but there’s not much evidence she can comprehend what he’s saying, much less change her behavior.
For anyone who’s cared for a loved one with dementia, the scene described above is common, even banal. It doesn’t play that way, though. “Subtle” is an odd term to describe a Gaspar Noé film, but what makes the split screen device proves ingenious is how much it intrinsically raises the stakes, just by turning its characters into islands in the stream. Whenever Lebrun steps out onto the balcony or lights up the stove or slips on her coat for a walk, Noé allows us to imagine the potential for catastrophe—heightened further, in a way, by the director’s own reputation for mischief. Argento cannot keep his eyes on her at all times—and he should not, given his own questionable health, be caring for her.
To this volatile mix, Noé adds Alex Lutz as their son, who does everything he can to intervene in this tough situation, but isn’t equipped to handle it. We learn that Lutz has been in and out of rehab with a heroin addiction, and struggling to manage the fallout from a failed marriage and a tenuous custody situation. The son’s personal vulnerabilities dovetail poignantly with his parents’: All three are clinging to each other, and Noé’s one sentimental thought, echoed in that opening dedication, is that love persists beyond cognition. There are flashes of startling tenderness amid all the heartache.
Then again, maybe that’s Noé’s cruelty taking a stealthier form, much like Michael Haneke did in 2012’s Amour, which followed a similar scenario down its own howling vortex. How can we know profound loss if we don’t also know profound love? If this couple were incapable of showing each other kindness or condemned to a miserable retirement, then it might be a mercy for their lives to break apart and end. The potency of Vortex lies in the combination of Noé’s compassion for all three of these characters—and the superb work of his actors, with Argento a notable surprise—and his career-long assertion of death as a cold, ugly, merciless inevitability. It isn’t a peaceful process.
It’s tempting to say that Lux Æterna is the primordial ooze from which Vortex emerged, dripping with significance, but that’s only true of the split-screen style that Noé introduced for this experimental frippery. Contrast the dedication that opens Vortex with the Fyodor Dostoevsky epigraph here: “You are all in good health but you cannot imagine the supreme happiness an epileptic feels in the moments before a fit.” Ever keen to test the limits of perception—and an audience’s basic physical ability to watch one of his films—Noe uses the quote to clear the runway for the aggressive strobe effects that he occasionally deploys in his work, most notably in the dazzling opening credits of his 2009 afterlife phantasmagoria Enter the Void. Noé also pulls extensively from Day of Wrath, Carl Dreyer’s otherworldly 1943 drama about the persecution of witches. The man likes his quotes.
Lux Æterna is itself in quotation marks, a meta-movie along the lines of Irma Vep, Olivier Assayas’ multi-layered film about a catastrophic effort to modernize the French silent serial Les Vampires. It started life as an ad for Yves Saint-Laurent before getting expanded into novella-length feature, but it’s still more a repository of thoughts and techniques than a fully developed concept. The single-location setting and loosey-goosey quality of the dialogue owes something to the mad spontaneity of Noé’s previous film, the deranged 2018 dance psychodrama Climax, but it doesn’t sweat the meticulous choreography.
The improvisational anti-fun starts with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle playing themselves as actresses in a horror knockoff of Day of Wrath, but their chat sounds like Noé overhearing a conversation about Noé. “Fuck entertainment movies,” says Dalle. They bore me.” Both agree that it’s fine if a director is “a prick” and puts them through the wringer if the end justifies the means. (In a self-deprecating gesture, Noé introduces a character later who keeps trying to pitch Gainsbourg a project similar to this one. No dice.) Dallé takes up most of the oxygen raging against the ineptitude of the production, but it seems like a battle at the end of a war we haven’t witnessed. It’s not worth putting the pieces together.
There’s a for-fans-only quality to Lux Æterna, as if Noé is offering a tour of his creative vineyard before popping open the reserve strobes at the end. (It tastes great, but it’s not up to the ’09 vintage.) Perhaps it’s the film he needed to make to get to Vortex. The rest of us could have skipped the step.
Vortex is currently playing in limited release. Lux Æterna opens exclusively at Metrograph in New York on Friday.
I'm wary of Noe in the extreme ever since seeing Irreversible. That film really fucked me up, and made me want time to run backward so I could unsee it.