I once asked my gran, “Gran, what’s good about getting old?” and she looked me dead in the eye and said, “Fuck all”.

That’s what Vortex brought to mind. It’s basically about the nightmare of old age. Elle, beautifully played by Francoise Lebrun, is a retired psychiatrist and writer who is now losing her mind to dementia. Her husband Lui, portrayed so vulnerably by Dario Argento, struggles to care for her, given that he is also elderly and has heart problems.

The film uses split screen to depict Elle and Lui’s lives, showing them at first together, happy and in sync, then diverging more and more dangerously. It also shows how Elle experiences the same events totally differently from Lui. He will be relaxed and chatting on the phone in the next room, and Elle will have done several circuits of their small flat, with an anxious but aimless pacing of someone lost and trying to make sense of where they are. Therefore any loud noise might barely register with him, while Elle will react as if she is in immediate life-threatening danger.

The film is actually shot in Cinemascope, then split in half, so each screen has that square appearance of old photos. And since their small, booklined flat is full of muted hues, they look like old pictures that the colour has ran out of, and are slowly dulling to sepia. Just as Elle is slowly dulling.

Elle and Lui are such a loving couple, and they care for each other with such tenderness, you are really invested in their wellbeing. They are alone together a lot of the time, apart from occasional visits from their son, and they rely on each other for everything. The opening scene is of them getting out of bed and starting their morning, and you can almost see a rhythm to it, something practiced over decades.

Elle, though, is beginning to lose her place in this dance. With the film following her while she’s on her own, you realise how much of the time she is looking for clues, clues to where she is, what she’s supposed to be doing, and where she’s supposed to be going. She takes the bins out, and as soon as the bag leaves her hand, she has no idea where she is or meant to be going. Someone has left the outer door to the close open, so she goes out onto the city street, because an open door suggests you go through it. Pacing around in a shirt pulled over her goonie, she stares fretfully in windows, trying to remember what she is out shopping for. When she sees toys in a shop sign, it seems to spark some memory of her son, so she goes in and is directed to the back. But she gets lost in the stacks, totally at a loss for where she is or how she got there or how to get out. Every small thing is terrifying, like at any moment she might fall off the edge of the world.

The split screen also emphasises how Lui can’t leave her alone for a second. If he takes a nap, she might leave the gas on. If he takes a shower, she might destroy stuff on a tidying rampage. And that’s just the stuff he catches her at. You as the audience have an even heightened sense of dread because you can see how many near misses she’s had that he’s not picked up on.

This is a horror movie. But without any metaphor to shield you, and no comfort of it being unreal. Lui and Elle, both once incredible writers, voracious readers, and partners in intellectual discourse, are now essentially trapped in frail and betraying bodies, watching as the very things that made them them are slowly stripped away.

The director prefaces the film with a dedication, “To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts”. And that is what they are both going through, living decay. And the only endpoint for it will be certain death.

This is a film for the dark watches of the night. It is a 3am kind of film. When you lie awake and worry about how all you are and all you love will be wiped out forever, and all your worry will not change one thing nor stop it by a single second.

Goodnight kids.

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