Dementia has been a subject with which cinema has, thus far, had a relatively uneasy relationship. Dealt with relatively uncommonly by film-makers in past decades, it has only been since the turn of the century that the condition has been explored in depth by mainstream directors in a manner that can be considered truly international in scale. However, narrative engagement with dementia to date has largely been confined to award-winning biopics such as Iris (Richard Eyre, 2001) and The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011), or harrowing emotional dramas which have included Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2006) and Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012). It has only been in recent years that the subject has started to be tentatively addressed in comedy-dramas and other genres of film, a development which has helped to heighten audience awareness of the condition and how it has the potential to affect individuals of any age or background.
One of the most unconventional cinematic explorations of dementia has come in the form of Cortex, a film directed by Nicolas Boukhrief which was released in 2008. Produced in France, and featuring French dialogue throughout, Cortex is a rare example of the symptoms of dementia being highlighted within the thriller genre - not simply as a plot device, but rather as the central core of the film’s narrative. The action features a retired police inspector named Charles Boyer (a mesmerising performance by veteran actor André Dussollier) who, having been diagnosed with the onset of dementia, eventually discovers that he is having difficulty living independently. Concerned for his future, Boyer makes the difficult decision to leave his home, relocating to The Residénce - a clinic which specialises in the treatment of neurological conditions. As the inspector settles into life at the institute he soon becomes increasingly concerned when he learns that other residents are disappearing, supposedly dying from unexplained causes. However, Boyer feels uncertain of how far he can trust his instincts, honed over many years in the police force, as the progressive effects of dementia continue to affect his cognitive abilities. Can he determine the nature of the apparent murders that he is witnessing around him, when he cannot even be sure that any crime has really taken place?
Thanks to Dussollier’s fascinatingly charismatic central performance, Cortex is a film which will make even die-hard mystery buffs work hard to unravel the conundrum at the heart of the narrative. In spite of its genre trappings, this is no straightforward whodunit. The tightly-written screenplay by Boukhrief and Frédérique Moreau never relies on an exploitative employment of dementia as a simple mechanism of the plot, instead ensuring that the condition is dealt with sensitively and as fundamental to the film’s approach. In this sense, Boukhrief echoes the careful construction of a delusional mindset which would prove so pivotal to Martin Scorsese’s later adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island (2010), leaving the audience genuinely uncertain as to how far they can trust the protagonist’s perception - to the point that even the character can be seen to doubt their own judgement.
At the time of Cortex’s release a number of critics were to draw parallels with Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), a perplexing but captivating exploration of amnesia where the effects of memory loss are key to the film’s mystery. In truth, however, Cortex displays a different and broader range of concerns, unflinchingly addressing issues of the anxieties related to ageing and the apprehension which accompanies the gradual loss of key abilities due to dementia. (The sequence in the Paris Metro in particular emphasises an unnerving range of overlapping emotions in Boyer who, used to the toughest cases of detection, frustratedly struggles to understand a railway chart.) Although the classic Hitchcockian scenario of investigating uncertain crimes which may - or may not - be taking place was certainly nothing new in itself, the creative decision to put dementia at the forefront of the action raises a whole host of interesting questions which helps to make this unjustly neglected film stand out from the pack. How can Boyer solve such an ambiguous mystery when he cannot be certain of the accuracy of his own notes? Even if he can determine the culprit, will anyone believe his findings when they become aware of the condition which is affecting him? And, in the end, can he be sure that even the nature of his own identity is necessarily quite as fixed a concept as he once thought it to be?
Although Boukhrief exercises great economy in his direction, injecting just the right level of uncertainty regarding the characters and their motivations, it is Dussollier’s outstanding evocation of insecurity, anger and fear which leaves the lasting impression. In articulating Boyer’s melange of competing feelings and his struggle against delirium, Dussollier crafts a character who is both believable and relatable. The murky oppressiveness of the film’s clinical environment is well realised, and the script demonstrates astute (if often subtle) criticism towards the insensitive way that society can too often treat its elderly, infirm and mentally impaired. However, for all the worthiness of its social commentary it is the originality of Cortex’s central concept that ensures audience interest. In an age where youth predominates in popular cinema, a film which features a totally compelling central performance from an ageing actor should be commended as a breath of fresh air, not least when he is playing a character who is no lantern-jawed hero but rather a vulnerable but determined individual concerned only with doing the right thing while he still can.