Gaspar Noe, the enfant terrible of modern French cinema, had a great year in 2022 with two films that featured some of the filmmaker’s most stunning work with cinematographer/frequent collaborator Benoît Debie. One of these films, Vortex, depicting the last days of an elderly couple stricken by dementia, is a grim-yet-meaningful treatise on life that you’d expect from someone like Noe. Utopia Distribution presents the film with a Recommended Blu-ray release that offers a great 1080p transfer and a few bonus features that expand on the film.
As someone who has been lukewarm on the works of Gaspar Noe as of late, finding his Climax to be priggish and not much else, it really blew me away to love both of his films released in the US in 2022 – Vortex and Lux Aeterna. Both are shot by Noe’s frequent collaborator and amazing artist in his own right, the Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie. The way Noe and Debie both take control of the camera but act as a single entity becomes a focus in Vortex a bit, as the duo split the shooting work evenly by Noe following one actor around and Debie the other. That focus gives way to despairing, fateful, and finally, beautiful, representation of a couple at the end.
The half-hearted provocations I found in Climax I didn’t find at all in Vortex, with Noe’s usual immersive style being given the kind of narrative texture that I so desperately want from his work. And hell, the performance that provides that texture is played by none other than Italian horror maestro Dario Argento! It’s such a confounding collaboration that you can only imagine will end in bold, brash bloviations about art and our relationship with it, yet here they both look straight in the face of death and don’t back down from the beauty within the darkness.
The 142-minute runtime may seem like a bit of a stretch, but the story of Lui (Argento) and Elle (Françoise Lebrun), their cramped apartment and the downward spiral hastened by their bodies failing in real time feels fully alive and lived-in because of the roving camera. We spend so much time with the characters that we become deeply focused on the performances, of which you wouldn’t expect from Noe, as they’re rather understated and physical in a way I wasn’t expecting. Argento is a wounded force that’s unraveling before our eyes, as his character watches his wife unravel before his own eyes. Noe presents him sympathetically, zeroing in on the deep shame the character feels about being helpless and old.
The immersion of Vortex comes in the form of the soundscape, with audio from both Lui and Elle’s individual POV’s frequently crossing over, but delicately layering over or under one another. It’s not quite as disorienting as that sounds and it makes for a frequently haunting experience, with the wailing and exasperation of life crawling out of these people in moments you won’t forget, though it’s still enriching in about every way art can be. That’s probably the highest praise I can give to the form of a film.
Seek Vortex out not for a great, fun time at the movies, but a sensual and beautiful portrayal of life transitioning into death. Oblivion comes for us all. Doesn’t mean it’s fateful and without beauty.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-rays
Vortex is presented with a one-disc (BD50) Blu-ray release that comes housed in a clear Viva case with reversible artwork and an essay booklet. The case is housed within a limited-edition split case (available only at VinegarSyndrome.com) designed by Derek Gabryszak. The Blu-ray boots up to a standard menu screen with options to play the film, explore chapters, browse special features, and turned on closed captions.
The look of Vortex is rather unique and this MPEG-encoded 1080p presentation shows off those details pretty well. The film is presented in split screen, with one side following Argento and the other Lebrun, with Debie and Noe acting as camera operators. Both used ARRI Alexa Mini LF cameras and exposed a larger frame area to align the images easier in post, so what you see here are two 4K sources being cropped and reframed, which also explains why the film was finished at 2K. Because of that cropping, some shots can look a bit noisy than others, especially in the darker scenes. That being said, the encode handles it all capably and keeps the colors appropriately muted. Overall, this is a sharp and clean presentation that pulls a good amount from the source.
One huge reason to pick up this release is for the inclusion of DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track. It may not immediately impress as Noe’s usual aural madness has in his previous work, but with time it really reveals a lot in the small details and is beautifully layered given the multiple sources. When audio bleeds between the frames, it’s all nicely handled and offers some terrific movement in the surround channels. This is a mostly front-focused track, though it gains height where it counts.
Utopia Distribution supplies this Blu-ray release with a few special features to dig into, including a booklet essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas that’s worth your attention. The two Q&As are nice to have and Noe is in a predictably talkative fashion, too.
"Sad" and "defiant" are two words I’d use to describe Vortex. And if you can handle its fatefully immersive bummer trip, then you’ll find much to appreciate. The new one-disc Blu-ray release of the film from Utopia Distribution offers pleasing A/V presentations and adds a couple of special features to become a worthwhile Recommended Blu-ray release.