Gaspar Noé on ‘Vortex’: ‘It’s The Toughest Movie I’ve Done’

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To say that filmmaker Gaspar Noé has an eye for art would be an understatement. Yet, it’s delightful when the first thing he appears on a Zoom video call to say is that he likes a poster hanging in the background. Granted, it was a Pokémon puzzle pieced together, framed and hung, but the Argentinian director’s eye went to it quick enough.

Noé is ever-ready with his keen eye on art, or perhaps it was just his icebreaker. Knowing the maker of brutal, visceral and cathartic cinema like Irreversible, Enter The Void and Climax, he’s not one for bland niceties. For decades, his works have united, divided, surprised and repulsed audiences and critics alike. From brutal violence and gratuitous elements of substance abuse to infamously explicit sex, it’s fair to say there’s something wonderfully deranged about Noé’s cinema.

Beyond the stories, he’s hailed for techniques which make for deeply engrossing sequences – from single shot long takes that follow protagonists, overwhelming throbs of lights and colors to a roving camera that gives an aerial peek into buildings. His latest film – Vortex (now streaming on MUBI) – employs split screen to narrate an old couple – portrayed by Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun – as they navigate fading memories, mental health and loneliness. The dialogues – mostly improvised – still lands in a narrative realm not too far from Noé’s philosophies. “Life’s a dream, isn’t it?” asks Elle to her husband Lui as they’re sat eating and drinking. “Yes, a dream within a dream,” he responds.

Spurred on by deaths among Noé’s near and dear, his mother’s dementia and the director being diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage which nearly killed him, it was only apt that Vortex was born out of isolation-like conditions imposed on filmmaking due to the pandemic. But Noé looks well beyond his known style to make a film that’s heartbreaking, stark and unsparing with emotions. It’s devoid of any sensational benchmarks set with his previous work, which is why it’s being hailed as one of his most tender works. Others called it his “least controversial film,” which Noé has something to say about.

In an interview with Rolling Stone India, the auteur talks about the making of Vortex, choosing music for his films and more. Excerpts:

The kind of people you’ve followed with your camera often reveals a lot about your intent each time. What was the case with Vortex?

As you’ve noticed, the movie uses an unusual principle, the movie is shot with two cameras. The screen is split in two parts. One of the screens is following the male character played by Dario Argento. And the other camera is following his wife played by Françoise Lebrun. So the camera work was quite complicated, because I was holding one camera, and my cinematographer was holding the other camera. And sometimes we had to avoid shooting ourselves inside the frame of the other operator.

Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento in Vortex.

The story is a very simple one of an old couple, naturally falling into pieces because of their age. She’s demented and he has heart problems. And it’s not an autobiographical movie, but I’ve seen my mother with dementia. I’ve seen how difficult it was for my father at that time to deal with it. I was also inspired by the apartment of many of their friends, who were all very intellectual and had homes full of books.

During the confinement, it was quite hard to produce movies in Paris or elsewhere, because of the COVID laws. My producers told me if I have any idea to shoot a movie in a small space, or in one location with two-three actors, let’s do it. So I said, “I know, it’s dementia. So let’s do the movie with three main characters, the father, the mother, who are old and their son.”

And then I wanted to apply this principle of splitscreen to that story. It was a kind of puzzle because by moments, we could not follow one actor and yet at the same time, because I wanted to control what was going on. So we had to decide which one we will follow from one room to the other. Then choose – the next morning very early – which take we were keeping, measure the timing, precise timing until the character, for example, of Dario will come back to the living room. He went to their room for one minute forty two seconds, and came back to the main room. So we had to invent a story for the female character of one minute forty two seconds until she would go back to her exact place.

It was to kind of maze but it was a funny maze to deal with. What was weird is that the apartment was like long but with a very low ceiling and very tiny. We had me, my camera operator, the cinematographer, his camera operator, we had the guy who’s carrying the mic. So we were at least six, seven persons running one after the other. It was very claustrophobic in such a tiny location. And most of them were wearing masks besides the actors to avoid getting COVID. But I felt I was stuck in a submarine for five weeks.

These sound like the kind of challenges you love taking on, the ones in which you feel uncomfortable or put yourself in a situation and see how you adapt. Do you like those kind of challenges?

Yeah. Also, you have to play with the language. Godard was great for playing with the cinematic language. If you want to talk, just talk. If you want to write; write, but if you want to make movies, try to play with the language that is so rich. So I have never done a feature with the split screen. So here we go.

You’ve often employed a lot of long takes in your films. What keeps you excited about these sort of techniques to keep going back to them?

The good thing about long takes is that the actors or non-actors that we’re filming, they can experience the moment or they can on one side, improvise. But also, you can make them move in front of the camera, like if you were shooting a documentary, to let them let the life flow in, in front of the camera.

Then in the editing process, when it comes to these movies, I would only keep the scenes that I thought were interesting, emotional, or strong for the story. But I would cut off any moment that I thought was uninteresting. So it’s not because I shot the long take of 10 minutes, I wouldn’t cut it into three pieces. Some people don’t want to cut their long shots. I’ve done movies with long shots in the past – Enter the Void, Irreversible, Love and Climax. But also I don’t need to prove myself I can I can do the long shot, I just shoot in long shots because I think it’s easier for me and, and for the actors. And then I keep whatever is good in the take.

I wanted to ask about the changing role of music in your works, especially with Climax. And with Vortex, you have “Mon Amie La Rose” – how did this one come about?

Concerning Love or Climax, I use a lot of pre-existing pop songs or techno tracks that are related. For Love, I decided which tracks in the editing process. Climax is a movie about dancers, so I needed to pre-negotiate the rights of the music. So I could feel these dancers dancing on a precise track. I knew in advance which tracks I was allowed to use.

And concerning this last movie, I showed it [“Mon Amie La Rose”] silently. I didn’t know if I would use music or not. At the end, I wanted to be very sober with the use of music. There was a music video made in the Sixties, in which the singer Francoise Hardy was so pretty. It’s just incredible. And then I said instead of putting us music coming from the neighbor’s apartment, why don’t we just put the full screen at the beginning? It worked so well that when I saw it edited. I dropped some tears and say, “Oh if the reaction of audience is as emotional as mine, it would work.” And thanks to Francoise Hardy, whom we contacted, we got the rights to use that video and the track.

I saw some of the responses for Vortex and one said it was one of your least controversial works. Someone said it destroyed them emotionally. How do you take in these comments?

It’s not controversial because it doesn’t contain any sex, it doesn’t contain drugs for almost nothing. But in many ways, it is the toughest movie I’ve done because it concerns a subject that is old age, and dementia, which will touch almost everybody on this planet, whether it’s because they will have to deal with their father’s dementia or their mother’s or their uncle’s dementia. It’s a universal drama that reaches all homes, in every country, in any class. My father, who’s seen all my movies, said, “Probably, this is your first general audience feature.” But it’s the most violent one, because of the violence of the arrow of time that every single human has to deal with.

Which are your favorite movies about grief, the ones that perhaps made you cry?

There’s one movie that I remember made me cry a lot. It was called Truly, Madly, Deeply [1990] was a movie made many years ago. It was about a woman. She has a husband or boyfriend, and the guy suddenly dies. And then in the movie, you would see the ghost of the husband, like he’s sitting next to her and she doesn’t notice him. But he’s there all the time. And then she goes to make her life. You have this guy staring at her all the time, this shadow, the ghost of her ex-boyfriend. And at one point, there is another boy who sees her crying all the time. He wants to have an affair with her. You can see that the ex-husband or boyfriend is staring at her and I was so sad. [Laughs] I remember I cried a lot watching that movie.

Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun in Vortex.

You’ve worked on a few music videos in the past, fashion films as well. How do you take on music video projects? What draws you to them?

First of all, you have to be available because I like much better doing feature films than doing music videos. Sometimes what happens is that between two features, I have some spare time. And also, sometimes you get paid well and sometimes not.

First of all, I listen to the track. With a good track, you can do a music video, I don’t think you can do a good music video with a bad track. I’ve been proposed a few times to work on bad tracks with big money and I said no. Sometimes, I’ve been proposed tracks that I really like with no money. I’d rather say yes.

In between your film work, it gives you a chance to try some new technique and you say, “Oh, I can try to make a music video with that particular crane that I heard of, or with that particular LED screen that I never tried.”

Sometimes you also accept to do those music videos in order to test something that you want to use in your future features. Mostly, I like doing them in one take, so that I don’t spend one month editing the music video. So some music videos have like one different take every second, so if it’s three minutes long, you need to you need to do 180 takes. No, I’d rather do a long master shot and then post produce it.

Vortex is streaming on MUBI.

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