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Of the Same Matter: Gaspar Noé on Vortex and Lux Aeterna

© Philippe Quaisse / Unifrance

With indomitable fury, death closely followed the life of Gaspar Noé over a few months between 2020 and early 2021. During that period, the Argentine director lost three men dear to him—all distinct father figures and/or instrumental agents in his artistic development—and experienced a serious medical emergency that could have cost him his life. 

Often deemed an incorrigible provocateur, Noé—a fierce atheist who rejects the possibility of the hereafter—fashioned his affliction into a cinematic piece practically suited for the COVID-19 era and which critics have hailed as his most emotionally straightforward work. But don’t be mistaken, “Vortex” is as formally audacious as the rest of his oeuvre. 

Horror legend Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun, an actress whose storied curriculum includes notable outings with Jean Eustache, star as an elderly married couple who to remain independent in the face of her dementia and his inability to serve as caretaker. Argento plays a film critic; Eustache a psychiatrist.

Unflinchingly cruel in its bluntness about decreasing cognitive sharpness and the frailness of the aging human body, “Vortex” operates with hard-to-watch honesty. Thrusting us into the couple’s malaise, Noé utilizes the split screen from beginning to end to accentuate the different psychological timelines they are living in even when under the same roof. 

Before entering the eye of their storm, Noé engaged with the split screen on “Lux Aeterna,” a 2019 commissioned medium-length film that follows the chaotic production of an avant-garde movie about witches, in which Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg play fictional iterations of themselves. Strobe lights abound to send the viewer into a trance. 

Over the phone from New York City, Noé shared details about the creation of this pair of split screen films currently being released in the U.S., the 20th anniversary of his film "Irreversible," and his thoughts on human arrogance. 

"Lux Æterna"

Can you trace your interest in using split screen to a particular film or piece of art that you encountered before you started working on “Lux Æterna” in 2019? Or was this an aesthetic choice that was born specifically for this premise?  

As everybody else, I had seen many movies with the split screen effects. Movies from the seventies, like the ones of Richard Fleischer, like “The Boston Strangler.” I had also seen movies by Brian De Palma with split screen since, but probably the movie that impressed me the most about the use of split screen is a movie that was not released in the states, but it was released in France, although it was an American movie. In France it was called “New York 42nd Street,” but in America the name it had was “Forty Deuce.” It was a theater play that Paul Morrissey adapted into a film with two cameras. I guess it was for legal rights that it was not released here. You can barely find it on a bootleg DVD with French subtitles. 

I was a film student when I saw that feature film that was shot from the beginning to the end with the split screen and I said, “Wow, that looks great. It's a great idea.” Unfortunately, they didn't really think how to make it more powerful. And so, I’ve had that movie in mind all my life. When I started shooting my previous movie “Climax,” the [fashion] brand Saint Laurent proposed to give money to make a short film. They said, “It can be five minutes long or it can be 70 minutes long. Whatever you want, but just use actors that are icons of our brand and use our clothing.”

I had an idea to do with Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg, but we had a limited budget, so we decided we could shoot this short film in five days. The first day of shooting, I tried to film it as I had I shot “Climax,” which means I wanted to shoot it with long master shots and we were so unprepared that at the end of the day, I had like a six-minute shot that wasn't working. And I said, “Well, now I have four days left. I cannot keep on working this way because I'm not prepared enough and there are too many people around.” I decided that from the second day on, I would shoot with many different cameras.

We had two cameras on the set and the guy who was playing the director of the making-of in the movie had a small video camera. I said, "Let shoot every single with two or three cameras and I'll see how to edit the movie, but it will not be a movie with just master shots." In the editing process I decided to use the split screen or the triple screen. I really enjoyed doing a very playful edit with one, two, or three screens inside the screen. One year after doing this short film that became at 52-minute movie and was shown theatrically in many countries as a feature film, I did another short film for the same brand called “Summer of ‘21.” It's on YouTube and Vimeo. Once again, I filmed that with two cameras and it's a split screen fashion film that I am really proud of. 

After those experiences with fashion short films, why did you feel that this formal choice could also work for “Vortex”?

Last year in the month of January, I came back from seeing my father in Argentina and my French producers suggested I do a confinement movie. Confinement movies are those kinds of productions in which you have one or two actors in one single apartment because we could not shoot in the streets. I said, “I have an idea. It's about an old couple. We could make it using split screen. We would see the lives of the two members of the couple. It would be shot with two cameras.” In my head, because I was already used to the split screen, I thought it would make even more sense than for the two shorts I had done before.

From a technical standpoint, what were the intricacies of shooting a story envisioned to play out in split screen from the onset? Did this radically change your process? If so, in what ways?

I have a very brotherly relationship with my cinematographer [Benoît Debie]. For example, in some movies, we share the camera. In some sense he works the camera and in some scenes I do it. On “Climax,” I was operating all the time, but he was doing lighting. In the case of this movie, since I knew that I wanted to shoot it with two cameras, I said, “You take care of one. I take care of the other one.” It was very playful because we were not using electric lights at the location. We used just the natural light of the day by closing and opening the curtains. At night we would use the bulbs that were inside the house. He was framing one point of view and I was framing the other one and would make sure that we would not get in the other operator’s frame.

It was a bit more difficult when the characters were in the same room. In those cases, we’d just shoot one of the characters first and the following morning I would edit the scene. For example, Françoise going to her bedroom and coming back to the living room. I knew the exact timing of the whole scene concerning her. And then the following day in the morning, we started by shooting what her husband was doing for one minute and 43 seconds before getting back into the living room and started the discussion with his wife.

"Vortex"

On an emotional level, as we enter the world of this couple, how do you think that this multi-perspective format provides visual insight into their relationships? 

The two characters are inside a bubble. Emotionally speaking, I think it's very clear, very transparent, very evident what's going on. They live under the same roof, but they are disconnected. They share the space, they share some actions, they discuss, but they're lonely inside their own bubble and their bubbles are square because they have a ration of 1.20:1 each. They have separate lives that are totally interlinked. But in life it's a bit like that. It also happens when you're with a friend and suddenly your friend is on the other side of the phone and the person is drunk, or the person has smoked a joint, and then the person starts laughing or saying stupidities, and you don't understand what's going on inside their head. You can also get disconnected from a person living under the same roof if the other person has dementia. I know those kinds of situations, so it seemed to me that it was a quite straightforward way of portraying those situations of miscommunication.

At the beginning of 2020 you had a major health scare. Did this situation inspire or shape your ideas for “Vortex”? Did it perhaps bring the notion of death and mortality to the foreground for you?

It was a sudden and short accident. I had a brain hemorrhage that I didn't expect at all. Then one month after it happened, I was out of danger, but I could have died. I could have suffered brain damage. But what happened just after I had that brain accident is that COVID appeared on this planet and then the confinement started. I spent almost a whole year watching Blu-rays and DVDs at home and I was very happy to do so. I rediscovered the joy of watching movies by watching Japanese melodramas from the fifties, sixties, and seventies, like [Mikio] Naruse’s movies, [Kenji] Mizoguchi’s movies, and [Keisuke] Kinoshita’s movies. 

After a whole year of watching classic Japanese cinema, I started this movie full of that kind of cinema. And that cinema was very mature and very cruel, but also very tearful. I was in the mood to direct this kind of movie. On top of that, I had lost three fatherly figures. The father of my girlfriend, the actor of my first feature, Philippe Nahon, of COVID; and I had also lost the director who gave me my first jobs as an assistant director, Fernando Solanas, who was also my father’s best friend. I was surrounded by death, and I also knew very well what dementia looked like because my mother had dementia for eight years before she died. 

The film within the film in “Lux Æterna” seems to have a certain thematic kinship with “Suspiria.” Was this relevant to your interest in casting Dario Argento to play the husband in “Vortex”? Or did you know each other before this collaboration? 

There was no cinephilic or film buff intention. I met him three years ago. I love the director, but I also love the person. And I always thought he was one of the most charismatic directors that I have ever met. He's very funny and very playful. Sometimes people write that I’m an “enfant terrible” of cinema even though I'm now 58. But I think he's more of an enfant terrible because he's 81 but he's as funny as a young boy trying to make twisted jokes. I always loved his energy. When he introduces his films in film festivals or at different cinemas, he does monologues that can last one hour without getting any questions and people laugh and applaud. He seemed to me like a natural born comedian. 

I wanted the audience to want to hug the two main characters who are both 80. I had also met Françoise Lebrun a few years ago. I was obsessed with her performance in this masterpiece of French cinema called “The Mother and the Whore,” because she has one of the longest monologues in the history of cinema, but also certainly the best one in French cinema. I met her 45 years after she had done that movie. She reminded me of my mother in some ways, because of her age. And although she doesn't have any brain problems, I thought she could play someone with dementia. She's a great actress and she's so sweet that you feel like hugging her the moment you see her. I wanted the movie to be tender. 

"Vortex"

From what we learn about them, we can infer that the married couple in “Vortex” were highly regarded intellectuals with fulfilling lives. Yet, in the end, their lives end tragically. What I gathered from this is that the process of aging and death are great equalizers. No matter who you are or were, we are headed the same way. 

There's a movie that is also very cruel about the subject, Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” It’s about these two old mafia guys, criminals who’ve been the evilest people during the lives, but at the end, they end up in the same hospitals as the nicest people and they're treated the same. They lose their mind, or they lose control of their heart just the same. Aging equalizes all experiences. On the other hand, even though my mother had dementia during the last period of her life, this movie is not autobiographical. But my father who's turning 89 years old now, he's more creative than ever. He's writing and painting. Some people manage to have very exciting lives at the age of 89, 90, 91, 92, 93. Destiny doesn’t treat everybody the same way. Some people die young. Some people lose their mind young, and some other people are brighter than ever at age 90.

Both Argento and Françoise Lebrun give unflinching performances, affecting in their own ways. I wonder if it was difficult for them to portray these characters who are experiencing a painful and traumatic end to their lives? 

I don't think it was difficult. They did their best and they did it in such a marvelous way that everybody's impressed. But the two of them have been working in movies since they were very young, and they know it's a game in which you try to imitate life at its best and its worst. There’s something in this movie about portraying the saddest things that can happen in life, so for Dario who's used to doing horror movies, this was like doing a psychological horror movie and for Françoise, who was always worked in French auteurs’ movies, she was doing another film d’auteur in which we're portraying old age. I think we really enjoyed the shooting. All of us, even the third character in the movie who's played by Alex Lutz—who’s a TV comedian mostly—knew that we were doing a sad movie and we wanted to do it this way. It's very graphic. We knew that we were not trying to do a funny movie or a shocking movie at all. We just wanted to do something that is close to this experiences that most people who have parents who are aging go through.

There was a moment in the film that the incredible Spanish-language song “Gracias a la vida” plays in the background, but I couldn’t tell if it was the Violeta Parra or Mercedes Sosa version. It’s truly a perfect track for this film. 

I'm Argentine, so I know the two versions. The original song was by Violeta Parra, who was from Chile, and Mercedes Sosa also sang that song, but the recording we have in the movie is the original one. For me that's one of the saddest songs ever. When I listen to it I cry almost automatically. Once we had shot the scene with the little kid hitting the cars and the grandmother crying, I thought the scene was perfect as it was, but on top of that I wanted to put some music in the background. And I said, “The scene is so sad that if we put ‘Gracias a la vida’ on top half of the audience will be crying.” Anybody who speaks Spanish starts crying because it's a song about someone who thanks life for giving them all the best and all the worst. 

"Lux Æterna"

Do you think that your interest in split screen has run its course after these three efforts? Or is it something that you want to explore further?

No. It made sense for this movie. I'll try to find another game to play for the next movie. The screen opens a lot of possibilities, but there are lot of other cinematic structures that I haven't used that could be as playful. My movies were mostly on CinemaScope, probably the next movie is going to be square or probably the next movie could be vertical. But if you want to release movies theatrically you have to shoot horizontal. I have a friend who did a TV show for cell phones. He shot a whole movie with a vertical framing. I thought it was so weird. [laughs] 

There's a scene in “Vortex” in which the mother disposes of some prescription drugs while in the other half of the frame her son relapses and consumes illegal substances. This on-screen duality is fascinating.  

He starts smoking smack again because he's so stressed and, and he doesn't know how to save his parents who are a kind of Titanic. During the whole movie we understand that their son was a junkie who stopped doing drugs, but the stress that is he's going through is pushing him into the temptation of neutralizing his brain by doing smack again. Illegal drugs and legal drugs are everywhere in every society. In some countries wine is illegal. Alcohol is a drug, coffee is a drug, painkillers are drugs. It’s like a really secondary subject in this movie, but I barely know anybody who hasn't been addicted during their lifetime to some product.

Right. Thinking about both “Lux Æterna” and “Vortex,” in the former cinema is described as a drug and in the other as a dream. What’s your personal take on what cinema resembles most between these two comparisons? 

For me cinema is like a drug. Love is to drug. We're addicted to sex and we're addicted to love. You're addicted to some substances that your brain releases when you're in love. But in this movie, once I knew that Dario was going to play the main part, we discussed what could be the profession of the character he was playing especially since he had to improvise the dialogue and he said, “Before being a film director I was a screenwriter. And before that, I was a film critic.” I said, “Okay, let's make this character a film critic.” We also decided together that he would be writing a book about dreams and cinema, how dreams are portrayed in cinema, and what's the language of dreams. That was the subject that the character is writing about in the movie. It made no sense to have him say in the movie cinema is a drug, but it really made sense that he would talk about how movies are dreams or conducted dreams that a director proposes to the audience. He provides all his dialogue on that subject.

"Lux Æterna"

And in “Lux Æterna” Beatrice refers to it as a drug. 

I did not write the lines of Dario and I did not write the lines of Beatrice. Beatrice likes talking about drugs a lot.

Early in “Lux Æterna,” there’s also a quote that compares the effects of photosensitive epilepsy to an altered state of mind under the influences of drugs. The last few minutes of the film certainly push the viewer’s tolerance to the intensity of the light. How did this prominent element become part of the story? 

I once found a book in France that I really liked, I read it like 10 times in a row, and I was always writing notes on it. It was about how to get stoned without using illegal drugs. There were many ways. You can stop breathing. You can jump with a parachute from a plane. All these things that changed your state of mind or your perception that were legal. They were like 500 ideas of how to get stoned without using illegal drugs. There were many ideas involving strobe lights and it's true that strobe lights put you in a very weird state of mind. I bought strobe lights when I was a teenager. I would play with them, and I could get stoned in a very legal way. And if in a movie you put very strong, color strobe lights you can also induce an altered state of mind in the audience. And that's what I tried to do at the very end of the movie.

There’s a moment in “Vortex” when Stéphane, the son, essentially tells his child that there’s no afterlife. Were you raised in a religious household and later became an atheist?  

No, I was raised atheist. I would say I was raised normal. [laughs] I really have a problem with people who talk of God or life after death. 

The last moments of “Vortex” are rather powerful. Those shots of the material things the characters accumulated in their lives seem to communicate that in the end everything goes away. We probably take ourselves too seriously while we are alive. 

I think people have a problem being humble. They think they're better than cockroaches and flowers, but we're made of the same matter. 

Have you ever been afraid of death, or do you worry about your legacy as an artist?

I think most people are afraid of not having enjoyed their lives. I'm enjoying my life, but once it's over, it's over. No one will remember how you lived, even if you leave some books around or some DVDs of your films, one way or another they'll be lost and erased. 

That’s interesting, especially since I wanted to ask you about the legacy of “Irreversible,” which turns 20 this year and was a major breakthrough for you. 

Did you see the new version? It used to be one movie told backwards. But two years ago, I was asked to follow the restoration of the movie in 2K. I took the material and I reedited an alternate version in which all the scenes are put in chronological order. The new cut that is called “Irreversible - The Straight Cut” was released in France, Japan, Russia, Germany, and in many countries, but it hasn't been released yet in the U.S. But for many people it's more emotional. And for sure it's crueler than the original one. I didn't add anything but it's just the perception of what it represents is very different. You really get attached to Monica Bellucci’s character and the end is much darker than when the story was told backwards.

I have the Indicator special edition Blu-ray from England that includes it. 

What did you think of the new cut?

It’s definitely more emotionally compelling, but I love the original version.

It feels like when you know a song and then you hear a remix of that song that is a capella, without the drums and without the guitar playing behind, everything becomes clearer. It's like a B-side of a vinyl.

"Vortex" and "Lux Æterna" are now playing in select theaters. Click here to read Glenn Kenny's four-star review of "Vortex"; click here to read Simon Abrams' three-star review of "Lux Æterna."

Carlos Aguilar

Originally from Mexico City, Carlos Aguilar was chosen as one of 6 young film critics to partake in the first Roger Ebert Fellowship organized by RogerEbert.com, the Sundance Institute and Indiewire in 2014. 

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