Gaspar Noé’s devastating and innovative film about old age

Reviews by Joyce Glasser whirl (May 13, 2022) Cert 15, 142 mins

Gaspar Noé’s new film, whirl, is “dedicated to all those whose brains will crumble before their hearts”. The metaphorical meaning is strong, but taken literally it is a devastating, compelling snapshot of old age: the mother (as she is credited in the credits) at the center of the film has dementia and her husband, the father, has heart disease. The well-chosen title invites us to imagine the onslaught of this all-consuming combination of failed mind and heart as a whirlwind sucking everything into its black hole.

whirl might remind you of Michael Haneke’s Oscar-winning masterpiece, love, in which a devoted, elderly, working couple comes to terms with his wife’s stroke. It won’t remind you of Noé’s own titled film love, which purports to tell the story of a young couple’s romance through non-simulated sex – in 3D. The enfant terrible of 21st-century French cinema, Noé’s films are rated 18 for sex and violence.

In whirl The only sex is a slap of affection and the only violence is the ravages of time, which earned him a 15 rating. Noé is now 58 years old, the age when middle-aged children lose their security and realize that the parent-child role has changed. However, the subject matter did not detract from Noe’s uncompromising style. whirl is in its own way just as challenging and difficult to watch as its 18-rated Irreversible, but for some viewers it will be more rewarding.

The film feels very personal, and not just because the cast of four includes a middle-aged son. Stéphane (Alex Lutz), a struggling film editor, has a drug addiction and a young, hyperactive son named Kiki (Kylian Dheret). His parents remain as unpretentious and value-free as possible. Stéphane tries to be a good son, but he is overwhelmed by the responsibility of fixing his distraught parents.

As the film begins, we see the mother and father open their respective windows to gesture to each other for dinner, from opposite sides of a courtyard in a pretty apartment block, as if they were neighbors, not roommates. They dine on a small balcony covered in bright flowers, and the man fills the woman’s glass with wine. They toast to life.

There isn’t much action. A retired psychiatrist (film legend Françoise Lebrun), the “mother”, has Alzheimer’s and her lucid days, represented by the aforementioned opening scene, are over. For the rest of the film, the unwashed dishes add to the clutter in the apartment and the flowers on the balcony begin to wither.

The lonely mother who wanders out of the apartment, gets lost at a local junk shop and distracts the father (film writer and director Dario Argento), a film critic and writer, from his work on a book on dream symbolism and cinema. The mother has lost her ability to speak or finds it so difficult that she can only mumble the occasional word. The father, despite his heart problem, still enjoys entertaining friends (including a departing mistress) with wine and lively technical discussions.

What seems to unify their separate lives is the couple’s complex medication regimen. There’s a bit of black comedy when they mix up their pills and forget their doses. As funny as it is, we watch with genuine disquiet as the mother, a former doctor, concocts a potion to administer to the father who is annoying her.

The fact that this is a film about old age is indicated in advance by the dates of birth under the names of the main characters in the opening credits: Lebrun (the mother), 1944, and Argento (the father), 1940. The film is about the loneliness of frailty and death is signaled by a split screen that runs through most of the film.

This device is no gimmick, but in the hands of cinematographer Benoit Debie (who has previously worked with both Noé and Argento) it is expressive, unsettling and functional. According to Peter Read Times Literary Supplement Review of Alex Danchev’s new biography of René Magritte, the painter would hide faces behind veils and masks, or in The listening room, fill a space with a giant apple to suggest non-communication and loneliness. The haunting presence of the familiar elements (the space, the people) creates a sense of the uncanny. Noé’s split screen can be read similarly.

Noé also uses the split-screen technique to create tension, for example when the father takes a shower without knowing what is going on in his study, where he has just been typing on an old typewriter. Behind the door of the steaming bathroom, on the other side of the screen, the mother is tearing up his manuscript. Whether she really thinks she’s cleaning up or is subconsciously expressing annoyance with her husband is ambiguous. The technique is used to express tenderness when the sparring couple suddenly shake hands across the split screen.

Lebrun is amazing at finding her way into a dark place so compelling that we’d be surprised to hear her speak coherently in a promotional interview. Argento is an actor and critic, among other things, but he is first and foremost a film director, best known for his 1970s and 1980s horror films, including Suspira (1977), reissued in 2018 by Luca Guadagnino. His performance is heartbreaking; like looking ahead into a possible version of his own life or the life of someone like him.

As with Haneke love, the well-inhabited apartment is the sole location with a few exceptions. Jean Rabasse’s production design is exemplary as the apartment, the repository of this intellectual couple’s life, becomes a character in the film. Packed with photos, books, albums, films and files that father can’t leave behind for a cramped nursing home, Noé makes us contemplate the fate of our own cherished possessions, the silent companions and witnesses of our lives.

Gaspar Noé’s devastating and innovative film about old age

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