Born in Argentina and an honorary Frenchman since his family moved there in 1976, director Gaspar Noé is the Cannes film festival’s artist-in-residence, bringing all of his features to the event since his 1998 debut Seul contre tous (AKA I Stand Alone). Noé’s films always provoke a strong reaction—many festivalgoers are still reeling from his 2002 rape-horror Irréversible—not just because of their subject matter but because of his innovative technical mastery. Noé was last seen on the Croisette with Climax, a visceral and visually stunning hybrid of documentary and fiction in which a street dance troupe is driven crazy after drinking punch spiked with LSD.
His latest, however, is everything that Climax is not. Filmed during a window in lockdown, Vortex stars Dario Argento as an elderly film critic whose wife (Françoise Lebrun) is slowly succumbing to dementia. Clocking in at a long 145 minutes, it is a surprisingly subtle study of a social taboo from the erstwhile master of shock, featuring two extraordinarily brave performances from its leads.
DEADLINE: Do you see Vortex as a sister piece to Climax?
GASPAR NOÉ: Nah, nah, it’s not. Listen, Climax was like a joke that turned into a movie, and the reason why I did Climax was that I was excited by the idea of making a film about dancers. This one is more linked to real life and the dramas of real life. [This story will be familiar to] every single family on this planet, especially people who are 40 or 50. It’s a kind of drama that exists everywhere, and that people are kind of ashamed of. They think it’s their own cross [to bear] and they don’t want to talk about it, but ever since I started showing the movie to journalists and friends, one person out of three who’s over 50 comes to me almost crying, takes me in his arms and says, “Your movie—it’s my own story.”
DEADLINE: Why did you want to address this topic?
NOÉ: Why are there are so many movies about bank robberies? There’s, like, one bank robbery every month in France. But life is such an interesting subject—ageing, time, memory, death—and I thought it was misrepresented in cinema. I’ve been through this with my grandparents—my grandmother, mainly—and I’d been through it with my mother, and my friends were going through similar situations. I wanted to make a realistic portrait of something that makes people suffer, but it’s an absolutely natural, organic situation. There is nothing to be ashamed of. We’re organic, and whatever is organic disappears.
DEADLINE: Who’s that singing the Francoise Hardy song at the beginning?
NOÉ: That’s Françoise Hardy. Actually, that clip was a last-moment idea when I started editing the movie. I was looking for music for the movie—which sad song could I use?—and then I thought of this song, ‘Mon Amie La Rose’, which is all about time and how time goes fast and whatever is born will die. This song is pretty well known in France, like [The Beatles’] ‘Yesterday’ in America. So I went to YouTube and I found this video made by Swiss TV when Françoise Hardy just started out singing, and she’s so beautiful in that [clip]. At first, I said, “Oh, it makes no sense to put that at the beginning of the movie.” But then I realized that it does make sense. When you’re editing a movie you start to notice what works and what doesn’t work. So we downloaded it, I edited it into the movie, and I cried watching it because it worked so well. So we bought the rights. The other weird thing is that Françoise Hardy herself is in the process of [dealing with] hardcore cancer and she’s asking for assisted euthanasia right now. The song’s about a flower, the most beautiful flower in the garden that dies, and so it has a very strong link with the subject of the movie.
DEADLINE: The casting is amazing. Why did you think of Francoise Lebrun?
NOÉ: Did you see the movie La maman et la putain ? That’s probably one of the strongest cult movies in France, especially among directors. It’s a movie that lasts 3 hours and 40 minutes long and was made by Jean Eustache, a director who had a short career because he committed suicide [in 1981]. But I’m obsessed with that movie, especially because of the character Françoise portrays. She has a long monologue that’s one of the most touching scenes in the history of cinema. So when I was looking for an actress for my movie, she was the one that had my biggest admiration of her generation.
DEADLINE: Did you know her?
NOÉ: I didn’t know her before, I’d just met her once briefly at the Cannes film festival a few years ago—we said hello and goodbye, and that’s all. So it was a huge gamble for me, whether she would accept to be in this movie. She’s the most professional actress in town, but I said, “I’m not going to give you lines, I’m not going to give lines to whoever plays your husband or your son, I just want the situations to be created on the set. And in your case, it’s going to be far more difficult, because people who lose their mind [to dementia] also lose their language, and so I’ll ask you to be mumbling all the time instead of saying things that would make sense. I want you to play the part with your eyes and your body.”
DEADLINE: What made you think of Dario Argento?
NOÉ: I needed someone who could make the character relatable. The son is a lost junkie who’s full of good intentions but who’s set to self-destruct. The mother is lost too, but she’s lost because of what’s happening inside her body and inside her brain. So the only character that seems normal and you can relate to and identify with is Dario’s character. Now, Dario and I became friends many years ago in Toronto, when I was showing my first short and he was showing a movie. I always thought he was funny and charismatic. When he was showing a film at the French Cinematheque he could talk for an hour without any questions. He had a standing ovation because he was so funny on stage. I thought, “Oh, I love this guy, I need to film him, even if it’s just once in my lifetime.” And then I never had the opportunity.
DEADLINE: What changed?
NOÉ: He was about to start directing his new feature, and because of Covid it was delayed. So I said, “Ah, is there a chance you will act in my movie?” He was my first choice, and finally he agreed. Asia, his daughter, helped me a lot to convince him. And then he came and we did the movie. We shot it in five weeks and we edited it in eight. The movie was shot in April and May of this year, and I wrote the script in January, February.
DEADLINE: So everything came together in six months?
NOÉ: Yeah. I had the idea at the end of January. I wrote ten pages in February, [we financed it], and then the producers rented the house that we found to create the location. I started doing the casting and we were shooting in April and May.
DEADLINE: Was much of it improvised?
NOÉ: It was all improvised. Of course, I would give them some advice before they would jump into a scene and do what they saw fit. Barbet Schroeder, a director I love, came to a screening in Paris, and he told me that what’s weird in this movie is that you sit there watching real life and don’t feel that anybody’s improvizing, because there are many tics that come with improvisation that are very evident. And he said, “In this case, it feels like a documentary, but from time to time you remember that it’s not, because it’s Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun.” The acting is incredible because it’s not noticeable as acting.
DEADLINE: Did you always intend to use split-screen?
NOÉ: I had the idea, but I thought I would just use it for a few scenes. But after about three days of shooting, the scenes with two cameras looked much better than the others, so we re-shot some elements to make it possible for me to have a split-screen movie.
DEADLINE: It has a very muted color scheme too, almost like Instagram. Normally your films are very bold and bright—what was your thinking there?
NOÉ: For this one I wanted to be realistic. It’s set in that tiny house, with small windows on the side, and it’s a sad story, so it would make no sense to do a hyper-colorful color gradient when the story’s not colorful. And the Instagram [comparisons], that’s because people are not used any more to the more square [screen] formats of the past. The movie is actually in CinemaScope, and the CinemaScope ratio is 2:40. So if you cut it in two you have two images that have a ratio of 1:20, which looks like the old silent movies. It’s not the ratio 1:1 that people use on Instagram.
DEADLINE: How would you like people to respond to Vortex?
NOÉ: I would like people to respond to this movie like I respond when I see a movie by Keisuke Kinoshita. During lockdown, I discovered some old classics of Japanese cinema—Mizoguchi, Naruse and Kinoshita—and I spent probably the best moments of that time in front of my DVD player watching those old Japanese melodramas.