Before we formally sat down to discuss the process behind the creation of 'Vortex', Gaspar Noé’s new cerebral and unforgiving psychological drama following the final days in the lives of an elderly Parisian couple, I opened up to actor Françoise Lebrun about how much I had been affected by the film, in particular by her heartbreaking performance. I was nearing tears just remembering some of the harrowingly beautiful sequences I had been presented with just 24 hours earlier. “But… the sun is shining!” she responds to my childlike state of despair.
She was right. It was a gorgeous Wednesday afternoon. Yet, hanging over me was the weight of one of the most emotionally suffocating cinematic experiences of my life. Her first remarks to me however changed my attitude completely; the spirit she exhumed throughout the following interview was one of pure delight and enjoyment. Throughout the space of our talk, she helped me to understand what the driving force was behind this unfathomably personal and life-altering masterpiece. But most importantly, she encouraged a divine outlook, a hope beyond despair that lies within the Vortex of decay, dementia and death. See below our discussion:
Alfie Woodhead: 'Vortex' has been described as an intensely personal film, to Gaspar Noé and to everyone involved, and it clearly deals with extremely intimate themes. What was it like as an actor to work on a set that deals with these kinds of issues?
Françoise Lebrun: I would actually say it was quite easy. It was mostly incentive – not conscious. The word that resonates best is organic. Gaspar gave us a framework and an action, and maybe even a direction like “it’s going to be difficult” or “it’s going to be soft” and so on. Sometimes he gave us some sentences to say, but [the performance] was fully responsive.
AW: Your character undergoes a rapidly accelerating descent into fear, paranoia and confusion, and you do an incredibly convincing job of embodying this. Did you find this process challenging and was it easy for you to break between takes?
FL: It was neither [difficult or easy]. It was funny for me to have a film without text. It’s easier – there’s nothing to learn. The challenge was really to be receptive. To forget who I am – which is the main thing for an actor in a way. But you also have to be responsible when acting illness, you have to be really careful. You have to leave all the pills out, you know? And you have to react without judgement. That’s it! (Laughs)
AW: How much research did it require to get into the state of illness, and to do it respectfully as you say?
FL: No, I read many medical articles and watched many documentaries – good ones and bad ones. There was a German documentary that was very good – this was the right place to look. But I also saw some fictional films… and I thought… pff… Shut up! (Laughs) Anyway, I saw these behaviours behind this illness and I understood that there is no list or instructions to follow. You develop your own illness, and everybody is different. So, I went on this way and I was confident with Gaspar because he knew, due to his mother and grandmother [having dementia]. So, he gave me some instructions: move your fingers, have ‘lost eyes’ and so on. Day after day it became quite easy.
AW: Gaspar Noé is famous for having his films packed with intensity, and they often force his viewers to undergo extreme amounts of psychological, emotional and even physical stress. What was the main goal behind the film and how were you directed through this? What did you want the audience to feel?
FL: Intensity. Emotion. Reflection – to accept human quality. We are going to die. Enjoy life. Enjoy the sun and so on! We are going to die – but enjoy!
AW: The film is almost entirely shot in split screen and there are often two scenes happening in two different places simultaneously…
FL: …You get two films for one ticket! (Laughs)
AW: Exactly! Noé himself described it as like solving a ‘mental Rubik’s cube.’ How did the style differ from a standard shoot that you’ve experienced in the past?
FL: Actually, I saw that at the end! I did not act knowing that there would be a split-screen.
AW: Wow! So when the cameras are together and then split away, you didn’t know this would happen?
FL: You feel it when you’re acting, and you know where they are and what they are doing but I didn’t act in that way for them. They move as they want and I didn’t want to interfere.
AW: Finally, I just wanted to ask about something that I felt was present in the film. 'Vortex' seems to carry the isolation of the pandemic, something that we’ve all very much been feeling, and I felt that a lot of images in the film are eerily reminiscent of so many things we’ve seen throughout COVID. What was it like to shoot in that context and did the pandemic inspire any of your energy in the film?
FL: We were cut off from the world [shooting 'Vortex']. Out. In fact, it was a nice adventure! As for the ‘energy,’ I don’t think so. I think it’s best not to treat chosen ideas about the film. The bodies speak enough. It’s not necessary to make sense of all of that.
I couldn’t agree more with her closing remarks. Whatever you see in 'Vortex', whatever despair, horror, even hope, is your own – there is no definite answer, and the decaying bodies talk to you personally. Gaspar Noé has channeled all the intensity, nihilism and violence of his previous works into a gentle, sorrowful ballad of fatal misery. Headed by two of the greatest performances of the last decade, 'Vortex' is one of Noé’s most incredible films to date – a paralysing, asthmatic fever-dream that spirals into triumph.
'Vortex' released in cinemas on 13th May 2022
Edited by Saffron Brown Davis, Film & TV Editor