CANNES, France – Gaspar Noé is a regular at the Cannes Film Festival, but this year he comes right under the wire: After the director shot his new film “Vortex” in April and May under a cloud of secrecy, he is rushed to finish it in time for a festival premiere. Friday night, the last regular day of the festival, the film finally made its debut; Noah had finished it a few days before.
It might be normal that “Vortex” comes at the end of the festival, since Noah recounts what happens at the end of our lives. In split-screen, the film follows an elderly married couple as they jostle each other in their crowded Paris apartment. A camera follows the demented wife (Françoise Lebrun) as she struggles to make sense of her surroundings; the other follows her husband (director Dario Argento) as he takes care of his condition and calls his mistress.
Although Noah has sent a jolt to previous festivals with provocative projects like “Irreversible,” “Climax,” and the 3-D pornographic film “Love,” his new film has a different and more contemplative vibe. When we spoke earlier this week, Noah said that the change in attitude came after major events in his own life. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
When did the idea of old age and death start to feel more real to you?
There are points of change in your life. My mother died in my arms, and when that happens, your perception of reality changes a bit. I also had a sudden brain hemorrhage a year and a half ago and almost died from it. They said, “There is a 10% chance that you will survive without brain damage. Miraculously, I did.
When you approach these situations – car accident, illness or whatever – the issue isn’t whether you should have an afterlife, which of course I don’t believe in. The problem is what are all the people around you going to do with your things, with your books, with the bills you haven’t paid? My main concern when I was in this hospital bed was, “If I die, no one will be able to handle all the books I have on the shelves.” The mess that you carry with you is the thing that keeps you alive.
What was your first experience with an elderly person who was losing their mental faculties?
When I was 8 or 9 years old, I met a friend who had a senile grandmother in her house. I came to talk to the grandmother and she said to me: “Who are you? You are not my grandson. I remember giving different answers to the same question, because as a child you can have fun with it. When it’s your own mother or your own father who starts to lose his mind, it’s much more traumatic.
You’ve been carrying the idea of ”Vortex” for a long time. How different would it have been if you had done it years ago?
Two years ago I wouldn’t have done it with the split screen. For example, I really liked the film “The Father”, but it’s a play, it’s very artificial. I said, “Well, I’m not going to do something like this movie. Let’s try to do something that could be playful in its form. Then I came up with this concept of shooting the movie with two cameras, and each camera follows one of the characters as if their lives were both complementary and separate – the story of two tunnels of life.
Dario Argento is best known as a director, and he’s never directed a movie as an actor. How did you convince him?
When I started to prepare this film, it was my very first idea, but I didn’t know if he would accept or not. And so one morning I met him at his place, I came up with this 10 page script and we watched “Love” together, which probably wasn’t a good idea. I was asking her to be in a serious movie and at the same time we were watching this erotic movie that I had made. In the morning! But in the end, he accepted on one condition. He said, “Oh, I wish the character had a mistress.” I said, “Of course.” I like to make films with people who have their character and their dialogue.
You’re really asking Argento and Françoise Lebrun to face the end of their lives playing these characters. Was it difficult for them?
When I see them, they are not afraid of death. They are afraid of not being fun! They are very playful and none of them is upset. It seems that at the time of your birth you are aware of the void you are standing on. But in their case, they have before them all this future life that they want to play with, even if it is not long. And movies are a game.
Few years ago, I spoke to you in Cannes after your movie “Climax” got good reviews. You told me you were a little surprised by this reaction. Usually they are more polarizing.
I’m happy when the movies are well received, it’s just that I’m so used to having bad reviews. I appreciate them – sometimes I put bad reviews on the wall – but I think you pay more attention to the reviews when you doubt the feeling you delivered. Directors of the past usually say their favorite movies were the ones that were hated the most when they came out. “Irreversible” was probably my meanest and dirtiest movie and it was my only commercial success to date! And the one that could have turned out to be a hit was “Love,” but it was sold to Netflix. Everyone saw it, but I didn’t get a dime. It’s like a phantom blockbuster.
“Love” has even become a TikTok meme and at the top of Netflix’s most viewed list.
In America and Europe, anyone who wants to jerk off and doesn’t know where to find a magazine at their parents’ house just puts on Netflix and sees the erotic film that is recommended. So I guess the whole planet jerked off to this movie for two, three years.
People in Cannes compared “Vortex” to “Love” by Michael Haneke. Would you accept?
You know what? Haneke did not invent senility. He didn’t invent age. I was very touched when I saw “Amour”. My mother was dying, and I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much in a dark room as when I saw this movie. But I would have made this film even if “Love” had not existed.
Are you afraid of dying?
No. Because of this brain hemorrhage, I feel like I have more time and I want to take advantage of it.
There are also filmmakers who pursue a kind of immortality through their work. Is it something that you derive any power from?
I think it’s easier if you are a writer or a painter. For example, my father was a painter and once he does a painting, the painting is still there and it doesn’t change. If you are a director, your films are now broadcast [via a Digital Cinema Package] which has a code key where if you don’t have the number you can’t open that hard drive. Probably all the movies we shoot today, in the near future you won’t be able to open all those little black boxes. So even with movies you can’t think of immortality. If your movie lasts even 10 or 20 years after your own death, that’s great.