Gaspar Noé’s (ENTER THE VOID, CLIMAX) new film VORTEX tells the story of a couple whose ability to care for one another becomes compromised as they age and one develops dementia. Starring Françoise Lebrun (THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE), Dario Argento (writer, SUSPIRIA), and Alex Lutz (GUY) as their son, the film is primarily presented in split screen. It made its world premiere at Cannes and its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival in the Main Slate. We spoke with Noé over Zoom during the New York Film Festival. (His screenname was “fritzlang,” the filmmaker who may have killed his first wife, Noé told us.)
Warning: this interview contains some spoilers.
Science & Film: I love the moment in the beginning of the film when the split screen drips down and disconnects the couple. Why did you choose a split screen?
Gaspar Noé: I [filmed] that shot from above thinking that probably I would use the split screen. If you’re dealing with someone who has dementia, you know that person is perceiving things you don’t perceive. You don’t know what’s going on in their head. It even happens on a much smaller scale when you’re talking on the phone to a friend, or a boyfriend, girlfriend, and their voice and questions are weird and you say, hey, have you smoked a joint? And they tell you, yes, how did you know? And you say, because I cannot understand what you are saying, and you don’t understand what I’m answering. People can get disconnected with a small amount of THC. When senility hits people, they get disconnected in a much harder way [and you end up] sharing the space with someone who is actually in another world.
My mother, eight years ago before she died, was in a very similar situation [to the characters in VORTEX]. There are moments in the movie that I experienced personally. I would talk to her, and because I have a face that is quite close to my father’s when he was young, for a moment she would think I was my father. Or I would talk to her, and she would look away watching the window, then I would say, mom, mom, mom! And she would turn to me and say, I heard Gaspar’s voice! She would not recognize my face but could recognize my voice.
The generation that is portrayed in the movie is the generation of my parents. I remember when my mother started losing her mind, we connected through Skype so she could see me—I was in Paris and she was in Argentina—and she didn’t connect at all because she would just see a guy on a screen and say, that looks like Gaspar. She was very pissed off, she didn’t enjoy it at all, so we stopped using Skype because she could not connect with the screen. My father is 80 years old and every morning he buys three newspapers because he wants to compare the information. That’s a scene, I don’t know anybody who is 20 or 30 years old nowadays who is buying three newspapers to compare the information.
S&F: Did you do any sort of research into dementia?
GN: My grandmother had dementia and my mother had dementia. I knew the subject. I had been to some funerals last year of people dying of COVID. The presence of death was around me, or the non-presence, because death is not a presence; it’s the things that happen around someone’s death that we’re representing.
Everything [about this film] was conceived very naturally, smoothly, and quickly. I had the idea of this movie in January of this year, we started trying to find money in February, we found a location, then I found the actors, then in April we were shooting. We finished on the 10th of May and had two months to edit the movie, mix it, and show it in Cannes. So, the whole creative process took six months. What actually helped was that there was a confinement in Paris [because of COVID] so you were very concentrated; you’re not partying, the nightclubs are closed, the cinemas are closed, so what can I do? Also, I had to pay my debts so I had to work. I said, let’s do a simple movie in a small apartment with two vaccinated actors.
S&F: I noticed that in the film, on the television, there were a few natural history shows or something that looked like that, and also in the beginning of the film the radio broadcast is speaking about memory and the brain. Where did those come from?
GN: That [radio broadcast] is a very famous one in France, by Boris Cyrulnik. I didn’t write it; we just found those podcasts on the Internet, and they fit to the movie, so we used them. The underwater spiders and crabs come from a French movie called OCEANS. We shot the TV with nothing on the screen, then during editing decided what we’d put. I had tried many storms, Hollywood movies, other documentaries, and they didn’t work. Suddenly, when I tried that scene from OCEANS it did work. At that moment in the movie her husband has already died and she’s alone. Those images are really creepy. They remind me of this feeling when you’re really sad or melancholic, you feel like you have a spider inside your body. She’s watching a documentary but to use those underwater crabs or spiders is also a perception of her inner feeling.
S&F: Among other things, VORTEX seems to be about the relationship between identity, memory, and place. The house in particular is such a character, did you find that place as is?
GN: The art director and production designer of the movie, Jean Rabasse, is by far the best one in France. It was an empty apartment [when we found it]. He brought all the furniture, books, posters, and in one month he created a whole life. You see the father’s death, the mother’s death, then the apartment’s death.
What’s really sad about [the father’s] speech about movies and dreams, a quote by Edgar Allan Poe, is that at the end you see what was going to be his intellectual testament disappear. It’s just put in a garbage can. Not only do his memories disappear with the house, also his thoughts or what was going to be his intellectual testament disappears too.
S&F: That is very sad when his life’s work gets tossed in the trash.
GN: Into the toilet! [laughs] Flushed like a piece of shit.
S&F: Does that say something about how you feel about the importance of leaving your mark?
GN: My father is a famous painter in Argentina, he believes in leaving marks. In my case, I know it’s almost impossible nowadays to show a 35mm print, so now you have DCPs, but probably in 50 years no one will have the code to open the DCP. I don’t know how sure you can be about the marks you are leaving. It’s easier for an architect, it’s easier for a painter probably. If you have sold a big painting to a museum and the painting becomes famous before your death… okay. But there are so many movies that have disappeared totally from this planet. Some of them I have on VHS that you cannot find anymore, but they are unwatchable because my VCR is not working anymore [chuckles]. People like leaving marks by making babies, but the babies are so different from the parents. I don’t know. I don’t think cats want to leave a mark. Plants neither. So why should we?
S&F: Has your father seen the film?
GN: My father hasn’t seen it. I’m supposed to go to Argentina to show it to him. If there are similarities between situations that I lived through with my mother, it is an invented story out of situations that happened in my family or other families. I lost some other close friends from COVID last year; I was assistant director for Fernando Solanas and he was like a second father to me, he died in Paris of COVID. The actor of my first two films, who was also 80 years old, died of COVID last year. People come and go but then, sometimes, when they’re gone there is a VHS or DVD left—that’s the mark [laughs].
VORTEX is written and directed by Gaspar Noé. It is produced by Edouard Weil, Vincent Maraval, and Brahim Chioua. The film stars Françoise Lebrun, Dario Argento, and Alex Lutz.