Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento in "Vortex." © Alamy

Why cinema is now a country for old people

Gaspar Noé’s “Vortex” is just the latest example of cinema’s interest in dementia
June 16, 2022

Towards the end of I Stand Alone, Gaspar Noé’s 1998 debut film about a xenophobic and brutally violent French butcher, a red sign flashes up. It reads: “You have thirty seconds to leave the cinema.” It’s less a warning than a boast: the Argentinian-born director has long revelled in his reputation as a cinematic assailant. His trippy films, which tend to centre around demi-monde urbanites, are often pornographic and as loud as techno dancefloors, and contain seizure-inducing stroboscopic effects. 

Vortex, Noé’s latest feature, is the most disturbing he has ever made. It’s also his most subdued. Inspired by the death of his mother and, two years ago, his own near-fatal brain haemorrhage, it details the dwindling years together of an unnamed Parisian couple (played by Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun, pictured above) as the wife descends into dementia. She wanders lost through once-familiar streets. Her husband struggles with his knowledge that this is “a disease without a cure.” Noé uses a split screen to illustrate the partitioned worlds the couple inhabit. At one point, the husband reaches across a breakfast table to touch his wife’s hands; his arm, almost miraculously, penetrates the threshold that divides the pair. 

Vortex is just the latest example of cinema’s growing interest in dementia. Last year, Anthony Hopkins gave his most animated performance in a long time as a mentally unravelling widower in Florian Zeller’s The Father.  In the film, Hopkins prods and accuses the people around him, but he’s an unreliable narrator. What is he truly seeing and what is he hallucinating? Individuals, relationships, the furniture in his home: everything is unstable—both for him and for us watching. This mutability resembles a worrisome psychedelia. The film morphs from social realism to suspense drama. 

The most unforgettable depiction of dementia in recent times is Austrian director Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012). George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers in their 80s, a loving couple, attending concerts in Paris and reading the broadsheets. Then Anne has two strokes, the first of which affects her powers of memory and conversation. George washes her hair, picks her up after she falls out of bed, puts on her shoes. Sometimes Anne is her old self: she laughs while reading her horoscope. Their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) lightens the darkness. “I remember listening to you two making love when I was little,” she tells George. “For me, it was reassuring. It made me feel you loved each other and that we’d always be together.” 

Just as there is no one thing called dementia, there is no single story of dementia. Every director will bring their own sensibility to the topic. Haneke, an astringent observer of the mitteleuropa bourgeoisie, includes an extended scene where a pigeon flies into the couple’s apartment. Throughout, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something violent is about to happen. In Haneke’s earlier work, his protagonists were confronted by spectres of fascism and colonial brutality; here dementia is the great disruptor. 

Is it a coincidence that all these films were made by European directors? American cinema is no country for old people. Audiences over 30 are seen as too discerning or hard to reach. The big studios prefer to back juvenilia, franchise fare or action heroes. This is one-dimensional entertainment populated by those with perfect skin, sculpted physiques and live-forever vibes. Americans (most famously “eternal life” seeking billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel) shy away from ageing and death. Only a small percentage of US medical students choose to focus on gerontology.

Vortex, The Father and Amour are not just about dementia; they’re about care, an area that the last couple of  years have taught us is not taken seriously enough. In her study Labours of Love (2020), Madeleine Bunting argues that “care can never be standardised—that’s part of its current crisis; it is full of the unpredictable, the spontaneous, and the intensely personal.” 

It’s the unpredictable aspects of caring for those with dementia that make it of interest to high-calibre actors, like Riva and Lebrun. Dementia scrambles time and memory as arrestingly as any Christopher Nolan movie. It creates soundworlds full of groans and repetitions that evoke avant-garde festival halls. It can provoke sitcom levels of misunderstandings and bathos, or the dread of a midnight horror flick.

Dementia isn’t just a personal or a familial affair. Deceleration, breakdown, barely managed decline: it’s a kind of environmental catastrophe. Who can watch Amour or Vortex in 2022 and not want to howl about the global dementia we are struggling to live with?