April 29, 2022 10:28 AM EDT

Gaspar Noé, the Argentinian-born French filmmaker, doesn’t know when to quit, and that’s his calling card. Love him, hate him, or love-hate him, the only way to approach his films is to accept that he’s out to push buttons you’d probably rather not have pushed. Whether he’s inviting us to a dance party turned semi-comic horror show (Climax), a hallucinatory out-of-body experience (Enter the Void), or an odyssey of sexual brutality (Irreversible), he’s rated E for Extreme. He’ll try anything once, which, aside from his visual inventiveness, is what keeps you coming back; repeating himself is the worst thing he could do, given how many people seem to exit his films vowing, “Never again!” only to come crawling back for the next one. Noé is a tough habit to kick.

In that vein, Vortex is unlike anything he has ever done, even if in some ways it’s like everything he’s ever done. This seemingly gentle story—that of an elderly couple reaching the end of their days—is marbled through with veins of emotional violence, like a cut of meat threaded with fat. Near the beginning, it comes off as a work of genius; by the end, it’s more an exercise in extended tedium. Somewhere in between is a beautifully intimate, if emotionally wrenching, story crying to get out. But always, no matter what, there are actors to watch, specifically Noé’s stars, Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun, playing characters whose names are barely mentioned, though their faces might come to feel nearly as familiar as those of our own loved ones.

These two have been together for a long time, as we sense in an early sequence, which is rendered—as is the whole movie—in split screen. We see the couple in bed, one asleep, the other having just awakened. On the right is the woman, played by Lebrun (most famous, perhaps, for her role in Jean Eustache’s 1973 The Mother and the Whore, though her resumé is much longer than that); her eyes shift and flicker anxiously, as if in response to the demands of some unbidden, invisible spirit. On the left her husband snoozes obliviously. He’s played, in a rare acting role, by Argento, the director of Italian horror classics like Suspiria and Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

After a time—a long chunk of real time—the woman rises from bed and treks through the couple’s cluttered, book-crammed apartment. She pees; she goes to the small kitchen and puts the coffee on. She pulls a paisley dress over her head and surveys a small rack of necklaces near her closet, but in the end can’t decide which one she wants. Not long after, the husband rises too. He also pees, an unsteady trickle we can hear. He goes to the kitchen, turns the stove off, and pours himself a cup of coffee. Then he wanders to his desk and sits down at his typewriter, hunting and pecking to capture his fleeting butterfly ideas. His wife tries to tidy some papers around him; he waves her away. Then she leaves the apartment, seemingly with purpose, but it’s not long until we realize that her confusion is persistent and debilitating, and it terrifies her. Her husband ends up searching the neighborhood for her, trailing her like a grouchy detective.

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This sequence is technically extraordinary, and emotionally potent: the two characters drift along in their split screens, sometimes overlapping slightly, or we’ll be shown the same scene from two points of view. Occasionally the shutter closes completely for a split second; the flash of black is like a stutter of memory. Noé captures the isolation of even longtime togetherness. These two people have been living under the same roof seemingly forever, but ultimately each will be charged with following their own path to the grave. There’s no other way.

We learn more about this couple: he’s writing a book about dreams and cinema, and he gabbles about it endlessly to anyone who will listen, or won’t. He also has heart problems, which he seems unwilling to address. She’s a psychiatrist—or she used to be a psychiatrist—and now, in her encroaching fogginess, she’s writing dangerously potent prescriptions for herself and her husband. He’s lost in a life of the mind, while she’s losing hers entirely. As these two grow weaker and less capable of taking care of themselves, their only child, Stéphane (Alex Lutz), steps in to help, but it turns out he’s as lost as they are, trying to kick a drug habit and caring for his young son.

The problems, and the crises, mount, because that’s the Noé way: a film that opens as a jagged symphony of tragic beauty turns into a repetitive dirge. Noé wants us to know how bad things can get, and then keeps turning the screws until his exaggerations become a cruel joke. Before long, the artistry that seemed so dazzling at the beginning comes to seem like a gimmick.

The reality of aging, ailing parents is something most of us don’t think about until we have to, and who can blame us? It’s almost too sad to face. Vortex bears some resemblance to Michael Haneke’s Amour, in which a similarly aged couple (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) face the end of life, and though it’s not quite as tastefully airless as that film, it feels similarly punishing.

Admittedly, no one needs to see a happy film about elderly people suffering from dementia. But with Vortex, the law of diminishing returns eventually kicks in—there’s a point at which an audience is likely to shut down rather than remain porous. Noé’s actors are wonderful—somehow they keep the whole thing going. This is Argento’s first leading role (he also says it will be his last, a one-off), but he gives us a potent sense of his character’s selfishness as well as his latent tenderness. And Lebrun is quietly marvelous, playing an intelligent, accomplished woman who’s suddenly as unsure of life as a child. Both her fragility and her stubbornness are believable and moving, though in the end, both of these actors become pawns in Noé’s excessively clever game. So much of Vortex is stirring, compelling, upsetting. But a greater share is merely numbing in its depressive showiness. Noé, the eternal provocateur, is the leopard who can’t or won’t change his spots. Never again. Until next time.

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