In 1973, Ernest Becker wrote a book called The Denial of Death, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize the year he himself died, in 1974. His proposition is that the idea of death is so debilitating that we have shaped our existence around pretending it doesn’t exist. Thinking about the “terror of death,” as Becker calls it, will often make us unable to function: “The terror of death is so overwhelming we conspire to keep it unconscious.”
Almost 50 years later, Gaspar Noé made what felt like a visual representation of Becker’s ideas.
In Vortex, Noé rolls the full credits first. It’s all Noé-boy fun from here.
Noé’s last movie, Climax, had two parts: the first a party and the second a brutal horror—someone laced the booze with acid, so people started killing each other. He runs the credits between the two parts, as if to say, “You got your ticket’s worth, now my fun begins. You’re all hostage.”
In Vortex, Noé rolls the full credits first. It’s all Noé-boy fun from here. Then, two screens appear, side by side, in a set-up that at first feels clunky and cheaply vintage. And a bad flashback: Noé had tried the split screen format in his 2019 film Lux Æterna, but that movie also had so much motion that it made people throw up. It’s hard to admire the purposefulness of the visuals when you’re about to spill your guts out, I guess.
Two cameras start rolling both from the inside of the same Parisian apartment, each following one of the two tenants, an elderly couple in a sequence they have performed for possibly decades: they both pee, but only the second one flushes. The first one puts the coffee on, the second turns it off.
All is good and routine until the woman leaves the house. She walks into a store and asks to see the toys, and then very quickly, she no longer realizes where she is.
The woman, who once was a psychiatrist, and who is not referred to by name in the film (she is credited as “The Mother”) is quickly located by her husband, The Father, a man with a thick Italian accent.
Noé has mastered his visuals to a point where he can direct the brain to accept looking at two storylines at once, and this time, without wanting to throw up
In the small thrill of this sequence, the double screen format goes from clunky to triumphant. Noé has mastered his visuals to a point where he can direct the brain to accept looking at two storylines at once, and this time, without wanting to throw up (triumph, I tell you). The double screen visual goes from unusual to necessary. These are two people who, despite living together for so long, are now leading two completely different lives.
As the deterioration of The Mother’s mental condition is displayed further, The Father, an author, is busy writing what he believes to be his chef-d’oeuvre: a book on cinema and dreams.
“Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level,” Becker wrote, and this is what The Father does. He writes very little but tells everyone he can that he is writing. As relief from managing his wife’s condition, he would call a friend and tell him about his ideas. “Life is a dream within a dream”—his favorite line that he wrote. He calls it “grandiose.”
The Son comes in, played masterfully by Alex Lutz, a veteran of French TV. He plays a young father who is struggling with addiction.
Later in the film, The Son struggles to find a solution to help his parents. His mother stops recognizing him, even trying to kiss him in the mouth at one point, while his father has a heart condition that exposes him to seizures. “If you fall, mom won’t be able to help you,” he tells his father, before suggesting that they should move to an elderly home. The father objects: “I will not leave my past behind,” referring to his possessions, mostly books and magazines. Plus, moving to a home is like living in a hospital, he says.
The central idea of Noé’s oeuvre ends up being quite simple: when the son was going through his addiction issues, his parents, being the reasonable ones, put him in rehab. The same way his parents label a retirement home as “a hospital,” he had once labeled rehab as a “prison.”
Now, The Son has become the parent of these largely inept beings. When he tries to do the same, to put them in a facility that will address their needs better than he can, they refuse.
I hate to do this, but watching the film, I was reminded of a concept from an unlikely book, the Quran. When talking about the difficulty of taking care of your old parents, you’re supposed to say to yourself: “My Lord, have mercy on them, since they cared for me when I was small.”
The implication here is that they have become small themselves, and like children, their decisions don’t always make sense. “I used to be the subject of worry,” The Son exclaims at one point, after realizing that he now has to be the one to worry.
When one of the parents dies, Noé keeps only one pellicule—half of the full screen. And when they both pass away, he goes back to their apartment and things. Everything gets packed up quickly, their apartment empties, and it’s like they were never there.
I’ve never actually managed to finish The Denial of Death. I’ve had the book for over six years and try to read it whole almost every year. But every time I pick it up, I am overwhelmed with anxiety and panic. I can’t sleep at night, and when I do, it’s all nightmares. I gave the book to a friend, and he reported the same.
That book is not the only one that triggers those feels. Recently, it was this video of a mortician who answers frequent questions. I’ll spare you the details from the nightmares I’ve had of that guy.
“Life is short and then you die,” as one teen anthology put it. Becker’s book starts with a preface from another author who visits him on his deathbed. The first thing Becker tells him is “You are catching me in extremis. This is a test of everything I’ve written about death.”
In his final moments, however, they drink wine together from a hospital paper cup and he embraces his death with courage. Another attitude towards our death than the one in Vortex is surely possible.