It’s August at the Locarno Film Festival and Gaspar Noé is in a philosophical mood: “In life there are not two doors. There is just one door. There is an entrance door and there is a wall, and that’s it. When you are aging you are getting closer to the wall, and at a point you crash.” One month on from his race to finish Vortex in time for the Cannes Film Festival (it eventually premiered on the final day at 11pm), he appears mellowed by its well-earned acclaim.
Set in Paris and presented almost entirely in split-screen, it tells the story of an elderly couple, played by the filmmaker Dario Argento and veteran French actress Françoise Lebrun. He is a film critic working on a book about the nature of cinema and dreams; she is a retired psychiatrist fighting a losing battle with dementia. “It’s the most realistic movie I’ve ever done,” Noé admits, “and also the most universal, but people tell me that it’s also the toughest in terms of the representation of life.”
At a table flanked by journalists in a hotel room peaking out toward the Alps, Noé opened up about the film’s production, his appreciation of mid-century Japanese melodramas (and morphine), and his own recent brush with oblivion. With Vortex’s U.S. premiere just around the corner at the 59th New York Film Festival, read our conversation below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Film Stage: Vortex opens with a beautifully mournful music video of Françoise Hardy, who herself is in the midst of a fight with throat cancer. Was this on your mind when you chose to use it?
Gaspar Noé: All her songs are so melancholic. The fact that I picked this song for the movie was because of the melancholy. Then, after I edited, I found out what she was going through. We had to contact Françoise Hardy for her approval, and the weirdest thing was she replied immediately. It’s got a strong resonance with the movie and it’s also why I wanted to put the photos of Dario and Françoise at the end of the movie—because Hardy is incredibly gorgeous in that video, and when you see the images of Dario in his twenties, and Françoise, they are gorgeous. So it’s exactly what the song says: the story of flowers.
At the same time, it’s maybe cruel to put the birth dates of the actors under [their names in] the film’s credits, but I put my own too, because at the moment you are born there is a clock turning and you don’t know when the alarm is gonna ring.
The location of Vortex, this Parisian apartment, is so important to the story. How did construct it, and how difficult was it, in the end, to strip it all down, and to leave?
We found one location, an empty building that was for sale, and in one of the floors there was something that looked like a long apartment with a very low ceiling. I proposed it to my art director Jean Rabasse, the production designer who does the Polanski movies, but also did Climax, and we invaded that space and in one month we created that old couple’s apartment. The job they did is amazing because it feels like the fifth character is the apartment, and at the end of the movie you see the apartment getting empty and it feels like another death, the death of the apartment.
The film comes quite soon after your own health scare. How did you get through that time?
That was NYE, between 2019 and 2020. I went to a big restaurant. I had oysters and got poisoned the next day. I was totally poisoned. I had another dinner with my father. I got drunk. The third day I went out with my friend who was having problems with an ex-girlfriend, she was in a club and he didn’t want to go alone. I had three gin and tonics and I was very poisoned with the oysters, and then the next afternoon—a Sunday afternoon, the 29th of December—I had a brain hemorrhage suddenly. It feels like if you had taken poppers in the afternoon, and I said “Oh shit, this is not normal,” and I ran to a bar. The ambulance arrived immediately. They said I could have died. There was a 50% chance I would die, 35% chance I would be crippled, or in a state close to Françoise in the movie, but because I had a fast reaction, and asked the bartender to call 911, I’m normal now. I hope.
So I spent one month on morphine at the hospital. I felt that the wall was here, like I’d been catapulted to the dark side of the moon and I came back. Also I had the chance to try morphine for the first time in my life, which helped me to stop smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and also I watched Gravity on TV in French full of morphine, and it was the trippiest movie I’ve seen in my life. It was very hard, but I came out of it without damage. I’ve always been dreaming of spending one month watching movies at home. I had all these classics that I hadn’t seen, even Andrei Rublev. I said, “I’m going to spend one month watching two movies a day at home,” then because of the virus I spent 4, 5, 6 months watching movies.
I watched all Mizoguchi, Naruse, expressionist classics. One movie that really moved me was The Ballad of Narayama by Kinoshita. The Japanese melodramas of the ‘50s are even more serious than the melodramas of Douglas Sirk. They are even closer to life than any realistic movie by De Sica. Especially Kinoshita. Kinoshita is so so touching.
Narayama seems quite poignant with your new film in mind.
Yes, it’s a very cruel movie about aging. Yoshida also did a movie called The Promise, with an old woman losing her mind. These are situations that are very common in life that are not represented. It’s not even an official taboo, but no one wants to see people with dementia because we all know that we will have to deal with it—probably with our parents and also ourselves. And if you think how many movies deal with this subject, ok: there is The Father lately, Far From Her, Amour, but compared to the amount of situations in real life there should be 100 times more. How many bank robberies are there in this world? One every two years? And how many movies do you have about bank robberies? That’s a genre I can’t stand. I hate bank-robbery movies.
In Vortex, Dario Argento gives a great performance. How did you work together on the role?
I told him, “Hey, Dario, you are the big director. I’m just a student. You take care of your character, I’ll do the camera.” He’s such a sweet guy, there are not many directors that I know that I would want to film and spend every day having lunch and dinner with. Scorsese is one; he’s another. There are some people in life that you like as a person, as an artist, and also as showmen. Dario Argento, whenever you see him on stage, people are laughing, applauding, and I’m very surprised that no one before me offered him a big part in a movie. He’s pure charisma.
I was told by him, and by his daughter, that he liked my previous movies. He hadn’t seen Love, but Climax, Irreversible, Enter the Void. It was not evident that he would say yes, because he was preparing a movie, and when you are preparing a movie all your brain goes to your own feature. But with the help of Asia [Argento], who convinced him to not stay in Rome but to go with his assistant director to France and work on his movie in France, finally he said okay.
They are all improvising, even the little kid. I got used to that way of shooting, because I think that the performances I get by giving a lot of freedom to those I’m filming are much better than if I tell them how. I often see Benicio Del Toro. I’ve never worked with him but I said, “Who among all the directors do you like working with most?” and he said, “Steven Soderbergh,” and I said, “Why?” and he said, “Because he’s the only one who doesn’t tell me how to do it.” So I said, “Ok: that’s how you get the respect of an actor.”
Françoise Lebrun has so little dialogue, yet communicates so much, purely with her facial expressions. How did she develop this, in terms of improvisation?
In her case, she is composing a character or a situation that is much farther from her life than what Dario is doing. I recognize him. When I see a film with Humphrey Bogart, it’s always Humphrey Bogart. When I see Dario Argento, it’s Dario Argento. With Françoise, I asked if she had ever had close friends, sisters, relatives, that had Alzheimer’s or similar diseases, because there are many similar diseases, and she said no, and she has a mother who’s 100 years old who hasn’t lost her mind at all. I think she was kind of worried because she didn’t want to get close to it—because when you’re over 70 you’re always a bit afraid of it.
But I had a collection of videos, from documentaries or things I found on YouTube. I also had some videos that I took of my mother that were very touching. You see some kind of permanent panic in the eyes, and sometimes in 5-6 seconds, without any words, you see the person and you say, “Wow, this person is high, high, high on terror.” It was really a composition that Françoise did. She’s very talkative, extremely intellectual, and she composed something that she would never want to be. What I like is that their performances are so realistic that you have empathy beyond the respect you can have for their lives. You want to hug them all.
Almost the entire film is presented in split-screen. Did you always envisage it this way?
Have you seen a movie I did two years ago called Lux Æterna? It was supposed to be a short but it became 52 minutes; it was financed by Yves St Laurent. I shot that movie with many cameras, and in the editing I decided I would do a split-screen. It was not meant to be. And then last year I did a short commercial, a fashion film, called the Summer of 21; it’s an 8-minute movie a bit inspired by the Italian Giallos. When I started this movie I thought, in some moments, I would have a split-screen. I shot, on the first 2-3 days, some scenes with two cameras, and I noticed that the scenes that I had shot with two cameras, if I put one on the right and on the left, those scenes were far more interesting than the ones that I had shot with one single camera, or if I would just keep one angle without the other one.
So I thought, “Oh, it looks great. Why wouldn’t I try to film the whole movie like that?” The final decision, it’s not even you who takes it, it’s the editing table. If you want to put music on one scene, you try many but, at the end, it’s the editing table that decides for you. It’s just evident that that music works. It was evident that the split-screen was working better than just having a single screen. But you are hypnotized.
The screen becomes so full of information. What do you think is the psychological effect that has on the viewer?
There’s one thing about split-screen. Your eyes are moving from the right to the left, so you’re panning permanently. It’s an idea that came to me lately. They say that for PTSD they do something called REM, and they tell you to move your eyes, and ask you questions, and after a while they say you can transfer memories from one side of your brain to the other. I don’t know much about the subject, but I know there are therapies where the scientist or psychologist is making you watch from the right to the left for a long session, and then your memory gets transferred. Probably the effect of watching a movie in which your eyes are moving permanently from right to left creates a higher state of hypnosis.
Vortex feels like a new direction for you as a filmmaker. How do you see yourself moving forward?
I don’t know. Each time you try to do something new, but not forcibly. Something that surprises you as a spectator. If you can surprise yourself, you can surprise other people.
Vortex will be released by Utopia.