2021 (November 29, 2022)
- Film/program grade: B+
- Video quality: B+
- Audio quality: B+
- extra class: B-
Gaspar Noes whirl begins, like so many of his films, with the full credits, followed by a peaceful moment between Lui (Dario Argento) and Elle (Françoise Lebrun) eating on the porch of their apartment. Elle comments that life is a dream, and Lui replies that it’s a dream within a dream, alluding to the Edgar Allan Poe poem. That portends the storms to come, as Poe wrote of his inability to stem the relentless flow of time as the sands of life slipped through his fingers. Noé then clarifies this point by showing a vintage clip of Françoise Hardy performing her 1965 hit Mon amie la roseShe sings about how her life is as ephemeral as that of her friend the rose:
Dear God smiled at me
So why should it be then
I feel like I’m falling now
Oh yeah I’m falling now
No one can say my heart
My head starts to tilt
My feet are in the grave
The rose god smiled
Tomorrow will be gone
Lui and Elle are an elderly couple who may already have one foot in the grave, but their remaining days together have been complicated by something beyond the normal concerns of aging and physical decline. Elle has dementia and their togetherness is now threatened by the fact that she is slowly falling into a spiral that leaves her alone in her own deteriorating mental state. The opening shots of whirl are composed so that Lui and Elle share the same 1.33:1 frame, but once Hardy has finished her song, the couple is shown lying in bed together, with a line between them slowly cascading across the screen, and then the Frame divided into two parts. With few exceptions, the rest of the film remains split-screen, with Lui and Elle each occupying their own rooms.
Noé has always enjoyed creating a sense of uneasiness in audiences through unstable camerawork, stroboscopic lighting, deafening soundtracks, subsonic drones, and non-linear narration. All these visual, audio and chronological effects are missing whirl. Instead, Noé uses the much simpler means of split-screen to create a completely different sense of uneasiness. As both sides of her life are presented simultaneously and not broken down one by one through the editorial process, it forces the viewer to confront cause and effect simultaneously. The familiar structures of the classic cut are replaced by the simultaneous unfolding of both lives. It’s a different way of embodying the manifesto of the great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni:
“I’m against it – I really feel the weariness of certain mechanisms resorted to in conventional films or in most commercial films. I think these mechanisms are wrong. I think reality has a different rhythm. In certain moments life has different rhythms. Sometimes it’s dynamic, sometimes it’s static. So why should we avoid the static moments in order to deal only with the dynamic ones? If a film is to take reality into account, our reality, the reality in which we live, it must also take into account the rhythms of this reality. Otherwise we move away from what is real and produce something false.”
While Antonioni worked out this principle, preferring the static to the dynamic and slowing down the overall pacing of his films, Noés employed roving cameras whirl relentlessly pursues his subjects wherever they go, never leaving them alone, even when the characters are separated. This reproduces the contrasting rhythms of life in a different way than Antonioni, as it does not allow the viewer to focus fully on Lui or Elle in favor of the other. They are always present on screen together, even when they are personally apart, no matter how mundane their activities may be. Yet the division between them never goes away because even when they are together in person, the cameras keep them apart. Each of them is shot from a slightly different angle, so the twin images aren’t perfectly aligned, almost like two misaligned Cinerama panels. It’s an intentionally chilling effect that keeps viewers from getting complacent.
Noé keeps the split screens running for most of the runtime whirl, until the devastating moment when one of the twin images goes completely black, leaving the other image (and the other person) completely alone. When the second image finally returns, it is no less lonely than before, offering no comfort to anyone, including the viewer. Noe closes whirl with a montage that shows the emptiness of what was once alive. Ultimately, that’s all each of us leaves behind: just a collection of images and memories. The real tragedy of dementia is that the memory loss takes away the meaning of these images, leaving only a void. Noé’s own epitaph for whirl sums it up perfectly:
Dedicated to all whose brains will crumble before their hearts.
Noé’s longtime cameraman Benoît Debie was captured whirl digitally with two ARRI Alexa Mini LF cameras with 15 mm Laowa Zero-D cine lenses. Debie and Noé acted as cinematographers, with the taller Debie generally following Argento and the slightly shorter Noé following Françoise Lebrun. As this resulted in a vertical mismatch when the images were stitched side by side, a larger frame area was exposed than intended, allowing the relative heights to be adjusted and the images to be digitally stabilized in post. This post-production work was completed as a 2K Digital Intermediate, with the various 1.33:1 frames contained in an overall 2.39:1 aspect ratio (side by side, centered, or to one side, as the case may be). Everything is reasonably sharp and relatively clean, although there might just be a little noise in some of the darker shots – Debie relied on natural light throughout, so he would have needed to make some exposure adjustments depending on the conditions. It also means the contrast range isn’t always the deepest, with some elevated black levels, but that’s in line with Debie’s way of capturing it all. Colors are suitably muted but look accurate.
Audio is offered in French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with non-removable English subtitles and optional subtitles for the hearing impaired. Needless to say, this is a very quiet and unobtrusive mix, with most of the sonic energy in the front channels and just some bright ambience in the surrounds. The music is also subdued, as apart from the opening song by Françoise Hardy, only a few passages of the original music can be heard playing in the background during the film itself. Noé is famous for appearing in films like Irreversiblebut in this case he lets the power of the images speak for themselves.
The Utopia Blu-ray release from whirl contains a reversible insert with alternative cinema posters on each page and an 8-page booklet with an essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. (Vinegar Syndrome’s website incorrectly identifies Heather Drain.) There is also a spot gloss slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 2,000 units, featuring artwork by Derek Gabryszak. The following extras are included, all in HD:
- Q&A #1 with Gaspar Noé (22:50)
- Q&A #2 with Gaspar Noé (26:32)
- Cinema Trailer (1:32)
The first questions and answers with Noé took place at the IFC Center in April 2022, after a screening by whirland will be moderated by Eric Kohn from indiewire. It begins with several questions from Kohn and then moves on to answering questions from the audience. Although Noé had experimented with split screens in his short films Lux Aeterna and Saint Laurent – Summer 21he hadn’t originally intended to shoot everything whirl like that, but that changed when he saw how well it worked putting together the first few scenes. He also explains the casting process that led to Dario Argento’s participation. Noé wanted Argento to take ownership of the character, so he essentially let Argento direct himself and also agreed to Argento’s stipulation that the character have a mistress. While the concept for Vortex obviously draws some inspiration from Noé’s own experiences, he describes the film as universal rather than personal and in no way autobiographical.
The second questions and answers was held for the US premiere of whirl at the 59th New York Film Festival in September 2021 and was directed by program director Dennis Lim. As Noé was not physically available for the festival, the interview was recorded via Zoom – and appropriately it is a split screen presentation. Noé explains how whirl came together relatively quickly, and how it ties into other movies about dementia away with her and love. He still emphasizes that his film is not autobiographical, he still relates it to his experiences with his mother and his own brain hemorrhage. He says the closer you get to death, the less you believe there will be anything after it. While Enter the void inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, he actually doesn’t believe in any of it. The interview ends with Noé warning the audience to get ready to cry.
That’s a fitting warning to anyone watching whirl. Dario Argento may be best known for his work behind the camera in the horror genre, but his on-camera character here is forced to confront horrors of an entirely different kind. For many people, the loss of their own mental abilities is one of the most frightening things imaginable, and for those who are forced to witness it happen to a friend or family member, it is one of the saddest. whirl It’s not an easy film in a number of ways, but it’s a moving portrait of how people process this type of tragedy – inside and out.
– Stephen Bjork
(You can follow Stephen on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook.)