Few filmmakers delight in the madness of torturing an audience as much as one Gaspar Noé. For over twenty years the Argentinian filmmaker has been serving up wildly hallucinogenic cocktails mixed from equal parts violence and sexuality, booming synths, and strobing lights. When the BBFC card appears before his latest film to explain that the given rating (15) is due solely to “drug misuse” you would be forgiven for presuming that the following 142 minutes will be quaint in comparison to his existing filmography – it’s anything but.

Vortex stars legendary horror director Dario Argento and French veteran of both stage and screen Françoise Lebrun as married couple Lui and Elle, living out their mundane, elderly lives together in a cluttered, but comfortable home. Such romantic normality quickly evaporates as it becomes clear that Elle is suffering from dementia, long past the point of no return with each day tragically worse than the last. 

Partly inspired by real-life experiences, the film finds Noé at his most tranquil with very few of the overt stylistic choices which he so loves to indulge. Think, for example, of Thomas Bangalter’s nauseating score coupled with Benoît Debie‘s stomach churning cinematography in the opening sequences of 2002’s Irreversible, where the viewer doesn’t so much as wander towards darkness as they do completely freefall into it. Instead, with Vortex, we are treated to soft colour palettes and faint diegetic musical cues to pull us into the embrace of reality. In fact, the only noticeable Choice-with-a-capital-C that Noé employs is to have the majority of the film play out in split screen, amplifying the growing divide between husband and wife, all the while allowing us to watch every angle of suffering unfold in real time. Vortex might present itself as true-to-life, yet such truth is undeniably cruel; once this becomes clear it’s not only obvious as to how this film fits alongside the director’s previous works, but inevitable.

It would be no secret to suggest that awards bodies have great admiration for acting performances which chew on the weighty themes of death and decay – over the last decade alone we have seen both Julianne Moore (Still Alice) and Anthony Hopkins (The Father) win Oscars for their portrayals of Alzheimer’s and dementia respectively, not to mention Emmanuelle Riva’s old-age, record-breaking Best Actress nomination for 2012’s Amour. And while it’s too early to know if Lebrun’s tragic turn will garner similar recognition, audiences can certainly begin to have such discussions. With time and space fading unknowingly around her, her whispered confusion and unfocused sauntering tightens our stomachs as if Hitchcockian suspense has taken a wrong turn and accidentally ended up in an old-age drama.

With its excessive length and unflinching look at the cut-throat nature of time, Vortex isn’t an easy sell for general audiences. It might even sound outlandishly grim, to the point where Noé has stated that his father believes it to be his most violent film to date. It is. Then again so is life: cold, unforgiving, and irrefutable. But we cannot forget that human moments of warmth are of equal value; the moments when we reach across the frame to hold our loved ones at their lowest point, when we continue to help the helpless knowing the ending will never change. After two decades exploring the depravity of humanity, Noé has very subtly switched gears. The cruelty remains – except this time it’s not as a result of the players, but the game.

At selected cinemas nationwide now