INTERVIEW

Gaspar Noé on dementia in "Vortex," witches in "Lux Æterna" and the "shamanic side to cinema"

The provocateur spoke to Salon about split screens and the effects of what he watched during COVID on his work

By Gary M. Kramer

Published April 29, 2022 8:07PM (EDT)

The Vortex (Utopia)
The Vortex (Utopia)

Gaspar Noé's new film, "Vortex," is sure to make audiences uncomfortable — but not in the way his earlier, outrageous films, "Irréversible," or "Climax," have done. Here, the Argentine-born, France-based filmmaker is depicting the very real and very painful moments in the lives of an elderly couple (Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun). She suffers from dementia and is on the decline; he too, has health issues. 

Noé shoots "Vortex" in split screen, which is not gimmicky, but rather reveals the tragedy when she destroys his work while he is in the shower, or the parallels between father and son, Stéphane (Alex Lutz), who stops by from time to time. Noé films most of "Vortex" inside the very cluttered (almost labyrinthine) home of the couple, which only adds to the feeling of being emotionally overwhelmed. 

Because the couple refuses to move into an assisted living facility, things only get worse as she mixes pills or leaves the gas on. "Vortex" is relentless in its depiction of this increasingly difficult and depressing situation. 

RELATED: "Irreversible" director Gaspar Noé defends nine-minute rape scene: "There are no bad deeds, just deeds"

Noé also has another film, "Lux Æterna," out May 6. This 2019 short feature, which runs under an hour, also employs a split screen approach as it depicts actress Béatrice Dalle trying to make a film about witches with Charlotte Gainsbourg, while all kinds of disruptions and disturbances take place on set and off. 

Watch a trailer for "Lux Æterna" below via YouTube.

The filmmaker chatted with Salon about his two very different films. 

"Vortex" is full of emotion, which ebbs and flows as we follow the characters. What prompted you to tell this story and create the situations and episodes that shaped the narrative? 

It's closer to my life. The other films I've made are about characters doing drugs, or a woman being raped and her boyfriend taking revenge on her aggressor, or dancers whose [drinks] are spiked and they turn crazy. Those stories are more distant from everybody's life and my life. "Love" and this film were closer to my life — this one even more so, because my mother had dementia for eight years then she died. I knew the subject. My producers asked me if I had an idea for a film with two to three characters in an apartment, because COVID made any production complicated. I said I had an idea about an old woman who has dementia, her husband is trying to take care of her, and their son is useless when they need him. It's a very simple story most people can relate to if you are over 45-50. 

Yes, your film is very grounded in reality. 

Before I shot this film, I lost three men who were close to me all who were around 80. [Argentine filmmaker] Fernando Solanas, who was my father's best friend. I started as an assistant director with him. He was like my artistic father. I lost Philippe Nahon, my first actor, who died of COVID, and I lost the father of Lucile [Hadzihalilovic, Noé's wife], who was like a second father to me. They all died in the same year. Three father figures dying in a row. I was in a ghastly mood. [Laughs] The good thing about [pandemic] confinement, I watched classics of Japanese cinema that are really cruel melodramas for an adult audience.


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We learn some details about the characters over the course of the film, but mostly, we are immersed in their current lives. What can you say about working with the acters on the characters, their history, and their memories?

"The film feels like a documentary because I did not give them any lines to learn. They were improvising their dialogue."

For me, the couple are successful intellectual leftists who lived in the '60s and '70s. Old age is a biological problem. It's a clock inside every human being, and there's a breaking point, and the rest is just a fall-down. You can never say how good the characters were in their professions. Seen from the outside, as they are depicted, they seem to have been good and successful and very intelligent, but they are just living their last days. The film feels like a documentary because I did not give them any lines to learn. They were improvising their dialogue — the father and son. In the case of Françoise, I told her to mumble rather than talk; you have problems finding words and sentences, so present yourself from talking. You can talk with your eyes. Everything film is fresh because they were writing their own dialogue with their own vocabulary.

You shot "Vortex" in a split screen format. Each sequence forces the viewer to follow one action over the other. It's easy to follow him when she is sleeping (or vice versa), but there are also moments of drama and scenes that overlap. Can you discuss your approach here? 

I had made "Lux Æterna" with split screen and some scenes had a triple screen and I enjoyed that gimmick. I even did a fashion short for Saint Laurent, "Summer of 21," and when I finished it some people said it looked like a Dario Argento movie. I called [Dario] and said, "I was copying you." When I started writing the 10-page treatment of "Vortex," Dario was the first person who came to mind for the film. He doesn't use split screen, but I thought of two films directed by Paul Morrissey — "Chelsea Girls," which he codirected with Andy Warhol, and "Forty Deuce," which was shot with two cameras. I remember seeing that film at film school in France. It was about male prostitutes on 42nd street. Forty years later, I thought I can try to do the whole film with a split screen, and it would make more sense. It's a couple living under the same roof, but they are in two separate realities, each reality is like a bubble. 

I've seen "Chelsea Girls," and you can only hear one soundtrack because the projectionist controls the volume and what you hear from each of the two scenes as they are shown simultaneously. 

I could have had different dialogues on both sides, but I knew it wouldn't work — it would have damaged the understanding of either story.

The film is claustrophobic, being shot almost entirely with the characters dominating the frame and surrounded by clutter. I marveled at the set design of the apartment. Can you talk about the way you framed the film and used space? Again, the history of the couple's lives and their memories invades every shot.

"When you empty an apartment, you feel like you are stabbing your parents because that is their life."

It's very claustrophobic because the ceiling is extremely low. I can touch it with my hand. I wanted to shoot in that particular flat because the ceiling was so low it felt like a bubble. What I noticed when you use split screen is that it looks better when two frames are the same level. Close-up on one side, the other needs the same on the other to be level. If one image is still the other should be still, or if I could not stabilize the image on the right, I would make the image on the left, I would shake it in post-production.

I was inspired by a famous film critic who lived a block from my house. He had books all over his apartment. When you empty an apartment, you feel like you are stabbing your parents because that is their life. The film is what happens after parental death.  

There are several points the film makes, from lying to Stéphane to keep him from worrying, and the need for communication; the lack of health care aides to monitor the couple; as well as the issue of medicating/drug use as salve. Was there an agenda here to raise points about how we care (or don't care) for as the film says, "those whose brains decompose before their hearts?"

Stephané says he was a heroin addict, and you see him smoking smack again, but they are all addicted to something — their own psychiatric pills or tension pills, or heroin. We are all addicted. I can tell you are addicted to books, because I see the books behind you. I'm addicted to Blu-rays. I was addicted to parties, but I've calmed down a lot. Addiction makes your life. I started early; I have this hardcore mental disease called collecting — comic books, and I wondered why the f**k I am spending so much time buying books, magazines, posters, records. I have never had to go to a psychiatrist to stop anything, but if there was a psychiatrist who specialized on how to stop eBay, I would go. 

Let's talk about your other film, "Lux Æterna," which depicts chaos that happens on a film set. How did you come to make this film, which feels like a fun side project between features, or a way for you to experiment with split screen and stroboscopic effects?

"I more often make movies about losers than winners, and part of the fact of being a loser is not being able to communicate."

That movie started when Anthony Vaccarello, the art director and stylist who designs for Yves Saint Laurent, asked if I would be interested in making a short film if he could finance it. I said, "What are the conditions?" He said, just use clothes for our brand and the icons for our brand, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Beatricé Dalle. Initially, I thought it would be 6-10 minutes and I'd shoot it with long takes like "Climax," but the first day was so messy, I knew I had to do something else, so I reshot what I did with two to three cameras, and it became a collective creation. I knew I wanted the lights behind the three witches to be stroboscopic with colors and lights. I like improvising as much as possible on set. I never expected the film to be this good or 52 minutes, and we went to Cannes, and it was a big, joyful event. Then it happened so spontaneously, you can tell you we had fun on set contrary to characters who are suffering because they are making a movie.

Both "Vortex" and "Lux Æterna" deal with issue of communication or misunderstanding. This is a theme that runs through all of your work. What are you trying to express?  

The real world is so much more instinctive and complex. I don't think I have greater communication problems than others. I think I have less communication problems than most people. But I more often make movies about losers than winners, and part of the fact of being a loser is not being able to communicate.

"It doesn't break your balls, but it breaks your eyes a bit."

You quote filmmakers and talk about raising film to an art form. In "Vortex" you have discussions about cinema as a place to expose dreams. What are your thoughts about cinema, and how do films like "Lux Æterna" and "Vortex" contribute to your ideas? 

Movies, when they are good, sometimes can be like conducted dreams. There is a very shamanic side to cinema. You create a story, project it on a big screen, people are in a dark box. You feel like you are in some kind of shamanic ceremony, and the director is the priest giving the story of the past to the audience that is sitting in the dark. Most directors feel like the Wizard of Oz, or wish they were the Wizard of Oz. I've said it a thousand times, but I believe my best psychedelic experience ever was watching the end of "2001" at the age of 6 or 7. When I saw it on the big screen, I thought, "What the f**k is this?" The good thing about "Lux Æterna" is that when it ends, you are happy. It doesn't break your balls, but it breaks your eyes a bit.

"Vortex" opens Friday, April 29. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

"Lux Æterna" opens on May 6. 

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Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Gaspar Noe Interview Lux Aeterna Movies Split Screen Vortex