Event Horizon: Gaspar Noe on His Devastating End-of-Life Drama, Vortex
In 2012, after months in Buenos Aires helping care for his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, Gaspar Noé traveled to Cannes and saw Michael Haneke’s Amour, about a husband dealing with his wife’s stroke. “Oh my god, I cried watching that movie,” he says. “Even if that movie had nothing to do with my personal life, it was about someone who needs to die, and at that time we were considering how my mother could die peacefully.” After the festival, Noé returned to Argentina; his mother died a few weeks later. When the Palme d’Or–winning, and quite brutal, Amour went on to international success, Noé realized “that these movies could exist, could be financed and that, after these experiences with my family, I wanted to do a movie about these difficult days and do it like De Sica did in Umberto D., Kinoshita in The Ballad of Narayama or Haneke in Amour. Why should I keep on doing movies just with teenagers who learn how to do drugs or have sex? There are other things in life that are more common, more dramatic and more interesting than that.”
A decade later, following his erotic 3D melodrama Love, dance musical hellscape Climax and Lux Æterna, a medium-length, darkly self-referential fashion film for Saint Laurent that is part Day for Night, part Paul Sharits-influenced experimental movie, the Paris-based director returns with that last-days drama, Vortex. Shorn of shock effects, acts of explicit cruelty and on-screen sex, it’s nonetheless a work that encapsulates much of Noé’s overall cinematic project, carrying forward oft-used stylistic devices, an existentialist viewpoint and a commitment to filmmaking that’s as much about its story as the sensations induced by the act of watching. Starring the Italian giallo maestro Dario Argento as an aging film critic with a weak heart and the great French actress Françoise Lebrun (The Mother and the Whore) as his wife, a psychiatrist who now spends her days in the haze of dementia, Vortex follows this couple—left-wing members of the May ’68 generation—as they shuffle around their spacious yet cluttered apartment in Paris’s Stalingrad neighborhood, tending to matters ambitious (Argento’s critic is quixotically working on a book about dreams and cinema) and quotidian (Lebrun haltingly navigates a daily life that has been made irreparably strange by her illness). Actor, director and comedian Alex Lutz plays the couple’s son, a recovering addict who evinces the alternating bouts of resolve and anguish that come with dealing with intransigent aging parents clinging to a way of life they can no longer honestly claim.
If this all sounds quite bleak, well, it is. But it’s also riotously funny at times—in one moment, Noé literalizes the idea that one’s life work turns to shit in the end—as well as formally thrilling. Noé shoots almost the entire movie in split screen, a frame divider slowly descending, like some Barnett Newman zip, early in the picture as Argento and Lebrun start their day. Each character occupies his or her own frame, allowing the viewer’s eye to dart back and forth when they are separated and take in uncanny moments and perspective shifts when they share the same scene. At times, the camera leaves the parents to follow the son, capturing at one point a heartbreakingly despairing moment that Noé scores to Ennio Morricone’s triumphant theme from Mon nom est Personne.
“When my father saw the movie, he told me that for him, it’s my most violent movie.” When Noé tells me this, I agree. In the end, all stories come down to a variation of the one Noé tells here. As someone whose own mother died from Alzheimer’s, I appreciated and even found consoling the astringent clarity of Noé’s vision, as well as the ways the film formally evoked how conscousness warps during periods of confusion and loss. I spoke to Noé via Zoom, discussing the technical aspects of his use of split screen, making a largely improvised film off a brief treatment and, to start, his health crisis, which occurred just before the COVID pandemic. Vortex will be released by Utopia on April 29, and Lux Æterna will have its own theatrical run in May.
Filmmaker: I have to tell you, I didn’t really know about how sick you were until I saw your postings just before Cannes.
Noé: It happened suddenly. In the middle of an afternoon, I had a brain hemorrhage. When that happens, you call 911, then at the hospital they give you morphine. They gave me so much morphine they turned me into a junkie. I came out three weeks later and had cold turkey [withdrawal]. I was back at my place and couldn’t sleep at all. Then, as I began to recover, the COVID virus appeared. There was a confinement, so I spent almost the rest of the year at home watching Blu-rays, DVDs. I had seen only one movie by Mizoguchi until then, so I got all the DVDs and bootlegs I could find and watched them all. There is something about the Japanese melodramas of the 1950s and ’60s that is really hardcore—they are very mature and philosophical. The movies of Naruse, Kinoshita, Mizoguchi—they’re great cinema and extremely touching. You cry watching them. I thought, that’s the kind of movie I would like to do after doing kind of “cult movies” for decades. By having Dario Argento in it, and by calling the film Vortex, some people are going to think it’s a horror movie, but it’s more like a Japanese melodrama from the ’50s.
[During the pandemic,] I was taking my bike and riding around the empty city. The feeling was very dreamy. For years, I had this recurring dream of walking in an empty Paris, as if a nuclear plant near Paris had exploded or, like in the movie Threads, as if a nuclear war had begun. I never thought that I could see the city this empty. It was very trippy and nice, but then the streets became more desperate and full of junkies. There are so many more crackheads nowadays in Paris than two years ago. Especially at night, the empty streets felt more dangerous, and I show that in Vortex. The neighborhoods I like in Paris are the African neighborhood, Barbès, and Stalingrad, which is also the crack town of the city. Many hipsters were buying apartments in that area five years ago, and now they’re trying to sell them for half the price—it’s kind of evil. I thought if I was making a movie about the last days of a left-wing couple, who are falling to pieces, the danger should be not only in the house, but also outside. It’s not a psychological horror movie, but there’s a feeling of fear everywhere they are. There is no safe place for them.
Filmmaker: I was going to start by asking you about the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “A Dream Within a Dream,” which is really central to the film. The line has a metaphysical meaning, and it relates as well to cinema as you are just talking about. When did you encounter that poem, and when was the idea to make it so prominent in the film?
Noé: The Edgar Allan Poe quote Dario Argento says in the movie comes from him—I didn’t ask him to say it. He said it once during a scene; I loved it and kept it in the editing. And on the last day of the shooting, I asked him to say it again for the joyful prologue of the movie. Dario improvised all his lines, the guy who plays their son also improvised all his lines and Françoise also improvised all of her lines. I asked her to mumble most of them, so you just understand one word out of every two or three.
Filmmaker: That’s very interesting, because some of these improvised dialogues are like philosophical debates, such as Dario talking about his worldview that fate moves within a city and his son arguing against that, or Françoise saying that people are fundamentally kind and Dario disagreeing. Did these conversations arise out of improvisation, or were you guiding them?
Noé: No, I wasn’t really guiding them. On the first day, if they would do something that I wouldn’t like, I would tell them so they wouldn’t do it again on the next take. But they were all very playful. To succeed in a collective project, like an [improvised] movie, you need to work with people who are inventive and playful. So, once I’d created the context, the apartment and told them the subject of the scene, I would let them go their way, which is why, at moments, it feels almost like a documentary—they were not remembering lines that someone else wrote. We’d shoot it once, twice, three or four times, but rarely more than four. But, contrary to other movies that I did with long master shots, I knew that, for this one, I would edit the scenes. So, I told them, “As long as it’s good, I’ll keep it. And if at any point it gets bad, we’ll just put a blink, and we will jump to another take, or to a few seconds later in the same take.”
Filmmaker: I love that you have the blink going back to your first feature, Carne—an editorial device you’ve stayed with since.
Noé: Yeah, a psychotic gimmick I cannot get rid of.
Filmmaker: What does that blink mean to you? It’s the opposite of making the cut invisible, but it also references the viewer’s perception because the viewer could be the one blinking.
Noé: As you say, it feels like a blink, and at the same time, it’s just pretending that you did not do a cut and being clear about that. Sometimes, when I do posters, we talk about that with the graphic designer. He does an image he likes, and I say, “OK, let’s put a little frame around it.” And he says, “You don’t need the frame—just put the image to the limits of the [page].” But I like it with a frame, and it’s the same with the blinks between the takes. It’s like putting the same black line around your visual to mark the borders of what it is.
Filmmaker: When there were three or four takes, would the dialogues evolve? Or were they very different from take to take?
Noé: I don’t rehearse, so the first take is like a collective rehearsal. I see if the mic or the other camera gets inside the frame. It starts getting good on the second take. If it’s a dramatic scene, you can stop after you do the third one, but if not, you can do a fourth. When I was doing Climax, I was shooting up to 12, 15 takes because there was a big mess that I had to handle, and also because I knew I could not cut inside the takes, so I wanted the take to be perfect. But Vortex was almost like doing a documentary: Whatever was good I would keep, and whatever was bad I’d cut off. When I started shooting the movie with a 10-page script, I thought it would just be 90 minutes long. Also, I didn’t really imagine that I would keep this split-screen for the whole movie. But, once you get the material and like it, you discover the final length of your movie because there are scenes you just don’t want to cut because you like them too much. There used to be this big thing that the movie should be 90 minutes long because that’s what the audience wants, and that’s what the distributors propose to the audience. But now, everybody’s used to [watching] TV series. Some are nine hours long, and I have friends telling me they saw them all in a day. So, I don’t think people complain as much as before about the length of a movie. But there is a natural inherent pace—when the movie doesn’t want to be cut, respect the movie.
Filmmaker: Was there much debate about the length of the film after it was finished?
Noé: Actually, no. It took me five weeks to shoot the movie in March and April . There were rumors that year that the Cannes Film Festival would be delayed until November, so I thought, “Oh, I have all my time to edit the movie.” But they changed the date to July, so I had just three weeks to complete the editing, and May and June to do all the post-production. So, we did everything very quickly. Ten days before showing it in Cannes, the movie was 20 minutes longer, and I reduced it, but I am very happy with the result. I like working at this speed. If the editing becomes too long, you get bored by your own movies. It’s like dinners that last all night long—they’re fun at the beginning, then they get boring.
Filmmaker: Could you talk about the origins of your work with split screens, which you’ve now done with Lux Æterna and this?
Noé: There’s a Paul Morrissey movie that I saw many years ago, Forty Deuce. It’s a split-screen movie made out of a theater play, but the split screen that lasted through the whole movie wasn’t very effective. It was kind of dysfunctional, although he had done it before with Chelsea Girls. I thought the split screen was a great cinematic idea that someone should do better. With Lux Æterna, the long master shots I was trying to do, like in Irreversible, were not working, so I said, “I’ll have to over-edit the movie,” and I had many cameras. I started having fun with two and three images [at the same time] that I all edited inside the same final cinemascope frame. So, you learn how to use the gimmick, the language of split screen, by playing with it. You use the sound mix, so you listen to one of the two screens or the other. Also, if on one side the frame is not shaking, it’s annoying that the other one shakes. If you do handheld camera, you should do two at the same time, or else still images at the same time. And when you have one character on one side [of their frame], it looks better to have the other character on the other side [of their frame] with a similar composition.
When I started Vortex, I thought I’d play with the double screen for half or two-thirds of the movie. But as we were watching the first day’s material, it became evident that the scenes that we could see with the double screen on the two characters were more interesting than the ones that included the two characters inside the same frame. So, on the third day I reshot some things I had shot the first day just to make sure I could have the possibility of keeping a split screen during the whole feature. I was holding one camera, and [DP] Benoît [Debie] was holding the other. As Françoise is shorter than Dario, I said to Benoît, “You’re tall, so you follow Dario, and I follow Françoise.” Both cameras had a wide angle, and both frames were reframed in post-production to make them more precise. There are interesting accidents, like when Dario sees Françoise Lebrun crying—she was not supposed to cry—and he takes her arm with his own hand. And then the arm seems very long, crossing the two screens. I thought “Wow, it’s so pretty!” But I never asked him to touch her. There are many accidents like that.
Filmmaker: When Dario and Françoise are apart but in the same apartment, were you ever filming those at the same time?
Noé: No. We’d shoot one of them the first day, then before the following day, we would decide which take we were keeping, then edit it to have the precise length of the shot we needed on the other side.
Filmmaker: Were you then doing playback of those previous takes when shooting so as to match the timing?
Noé: No, but we would know that Dario should go to his office and then, 15 seconds later, he should be opening the door going back to the living room. Then, he would finally get back into the room, where his wife was waiting for him 55-and-a-half seconds later. There was a countdown: My assistant director would say, “Dario, come back to the room… five, four, three, two, one, zero!” And at zero, he would open the door, so it was all synchronized.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the production design and the apartment. It’s so overstuffed! There is so much physical media, so many books, VHS [tapes]. And Françoise’s closets are so packed, and she has that giant rack of necklaces.
Noé: Some things were inspired by my parents’ house. They’re leftist intellectuals. [Françoise’s character] was a psychiatrist, and my mother was a social worker. In the ’70s, neo-hippies were [wearing] all these necklaces. All the posters that you see in the apartment are of 1968. The posters in Dario’s office are posters from my collection that I photocopied because I don’t want to put my originals on the walls. Dario said he wouldn’t mind playing a film critic because he was a film critic before he was a director. I said, “OK, you’ll be a film critic, and you’ll be writing a book about dreams in cinema.” So, their apartment in the movie was a mix of references from apartments of older friends in Paris and my parents’ apartment in Buenos Aires. [Production designer] Jean Rabasse and his team did a great, great job. When people would come to the set, they could not believe it was a recreated set. They really thought that we invaded the house of an old couple.
Filmmaker: What did Dario want from you as a director?
Noé: He’s playful, so he wants to have fun. And if there was anything that could be shocking, of course, he wanted it to be shocking. When he was supposed to portray a heart attack, I never expected him to be that good. He created his own asthma crisis—he had a microphone under his shirt that was recording his lungs, and it really felt like he had Darth Vader inside.
Filmmaker: He definitely had that phlegmy morning cough. I don’t know how much of that was added in post-production…
Noé: It was not done in post-production, it was done on the set. He wanted [the scene] to be shocking. He did the scene twice, putting himself in a trance [each time]. When I ask people who watched the movie when is it that they cried, for most of the women it was when the father has a heart attack and it sounds so terrifying.
Filmmaker: The scene with Dario and Françoise waking up at the start of the movie is soundtracked to a radio interview on grieving and the internalization of grief. That has the effect of making the whole movie almost like an experience of anticipatory grief.
Noé: I thought I would put something under [that scene] from radio, probably music. But in the editing process, I thought it could be a podcast about aging or loneliness. There is a very famous psychoanalyst in France that everybody reads, everybody respects. I thought, let’s just put [a recording] of his voice here in a podcast, and there was one about grief. So, we added it to the scene, and it worked perfectly. It was the first one we tried—I couldn’t believe it, it’s almost as if we [recorded it] according to the screen, and we got the rights immediately. And the image of Françoise Hardy singing at the beginning of the movie was the kind of happy accident that happened during the editing process. I wanted to get that song to try it on the balcony while they’re having their cocktail. So, I said to my editor, “Can you download from YouTube the song about the rose?” [“Mon Amie La Rose”] My editor [downloaded] it, but he took the image at the same time—a version that was recorded on film for Swiss TV in the ’60s, just a close-up of Françoise singing. And she’s so beautiful and so charismatic that I said, “Let’s put it inside the movie after the opening scene.” It makes no logical sense, but emotionally speaking, it’s perfect. It’s like a satellite that cuts the movie in two pieces.
At the end of her life, my mother had memory problems. She had a kind of short Alzheimer’s in terms of months, mixed with non-convulsive epilepsy, so she really lost her mental capacities over six months. I went to Buenos Aires to be with her, and many details in the movie are inspired by scenes that I experienced personally. The movie’s not [based] on my parents, and the son is not me, but I saw what Alzheimer’s could be. There are moments that are so tough for the person who goes through it that the days seem endless, both for the person and for the family. At a point, the suffering, the fear, the terror is so intense that everybody agrees that it would be better if the person dies, and you have to wait until, someday, it happens. And the day it finally happens, everybody cries. But the weird thing that happened to me is that when I lost my mother, I really felt this empty hole next to me—in front of me, behind me, on my left or right side. It’s like something missing in space. And I thought having half the screen black was a simple way of representing that emotional feeling. That’s what grief is. And then the split screen could start working again, and you say, “Oh, that’s normal life.” A normal scene in this movie should be with two [images] in the same screen. Then, one of the images is missing, and there is a black half. You say, “Oh, that’s what it feels like when someone else dies.”
Also, [filmmaker and Noé’s partner] Lucile [Hadzihalilovic]’s father died the year before I shot this movie, and Fernando Solanas died in Paris of COVID a few months before I shot this movie. And Philippe Nahon [the star of Noé’s Carne and I Stand Alone] died of COVID also a few months before I shot this. So, I saw three men who I really loved with all my guts, who were almost fathers to me, die in a row in the same year. I saw the whole process of the funerals, again and again. So, it was a very sad year, and very emotional, because in death there is not only sadness, there is a lot of humility—you learn about how useless life can be.