Without executive producers Natalie Portman and Jude Law attached as stars, and hit-maker Sia penning the set-piece songs (she also exec-produces). It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Vox Lux would get made. The film — subtitled in its closing credits as a “21st century portrait”— is a story virtually no one I can think of would want to watch.
Or rather, it’s a story about the kind of devastation we have all been watching in real life and in real time. There doesn’t seem to be much need to queue to observe mass school shootings. And other terrorist-led atrocities plus artists going bonkers before a digital world. Just open the homepage of The Guardian.
And yet here is writer/director Brady Corbet’s blisteringly bleak film. Its disagreeable characters and its pretense as a kind of modern dystopian fable, narrated storybook-like by Willem Dafoe no less. Where optics are everything and nothing, especially among the famous.
When we meet Celeste in 1999 — at this stage played by Raffey Cassidy, later by Portman. She is a Staten Island teenager “born on the wrong side of Reaganomics.”. She survives a Columbine-style massacre, and while recuperating, begins songwriting with the help of her sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin).
At the memorial for her fallen classmates, Celeste sings an original song that catches fire with a battle-weary America.
Record labels come calling and soon our girl is on her way, first to New York for demos and then to Sweden to create an album with a Max Martin-styled chart-topping producer.
Celeste and Eleanor’s parents essentially hand the girls over to an ethically ambiguous Manager (Law, one of several key characters named only for their vocation). And the film’s so-called Act 1 (“Genesis”) follows Celeste’s launch (though not ascension, it’s skipped over completely) to the pop ranks. There’s a pause to become pregnant and ponder with her hard-rocking British baby-daddy why pop music is the best solution for the world’s woes: So that “people don’t have to think too hard.” But we are quickly ushered into the future.
Enter 2017 and Celeste, now 31 and with a teen daughter (also played by Cassidy) in tow, is a train-wreck of a performer with a penchant for heavy makeup and very nasty outbursts. Her sister and the Manager remain by her side, but their roles have soured substantially. What follows in the film’s Act 2 (“Regenesis”) chapter is essentially a day in the life of Celeste, notably the day she is launching her comeback tour from hometown New York.
A series of small and large calamities — a terrorist attack in Croatia perpetrated by scoundrels wearing (coincidentally or purposefully) masks made popular by Celeste
Bitter quarrels with her sister/daughter/manager. Heaps of drugs and alcohol — tear up the floorboards of Celeste’s day. Then it’s opening night.
Visually speaking, Vox Lux is consistently interesting with Corbet, cinematographer Lol Crawle. And editor Matthew Hannam creating worlds that veer from palpably oppressive (the early high school scenes). That to kaleidoscopic (the performance pieces) to thrillingly chaotic (a drug-taking scene featuring Celeste and the Manager shot at warp-speed).
But in the end, all the sorrow and horror and anger and angst just seem pointless despite Corbet’s stated intention to juxtapose the meaningless against the tragic. Perhaps, taken alongside Her Smell — another nihilist rock and roll drama that played TIFF last fall. The messy-female-musician-as-avatar-for-society’s-ills is a thing. Maybe others will care more about Celeste’s fate than I did. I am keen to hear why.
Vox Lux doesn’t just have an attractive sheen. It’s also one of the most audacious, thematically rich, resonant works you’re likely to see this year.
In directly referencing both the Columbine High School massacre and 9/11. Vox Lux seeks to explore the connection between popstars and terrorism – coaxing up a wealth of thought-provoking ideas in the process. The film innovatively maps out the lasting cultural impact of terrorism and the appetite humans have for turning tragedy into heroism.
People use cultural icons like Celeste to overcome their collective grief. And the film comments on the strange impulse to commodify tragedy. Additionally, Vox Lux touches on our unhealthy relationship with celebrities and explores the price of fame with insight and visual panache. Vox Lux is a film that reverberates for days to come and this only scratches the surface of its thematic depth.
All of this is held together by a powerhouse performance from Portman. She’s equal parts fierce, bratty and unhinged. Yet she is also empathetic, emotionally wounded and deceptively intelligent. Portman’s complex portrayal is never less than enthralling. And she completely looks the part too with her over-styled quiff and swaggering demeanour.
She is utterly captivating and convincing as a world-famous pop star in the film’s climatic concert sequence. Cassidy is also great in her dual role, skilfully portraying Celeste’s loss of innocence and Albertine’s neglected, insecure disposition. Law puts in a delightfully gruff turn as Celeste’s manager and Willem Dafoe provides an amusingly sardonic narration.
Rating: R (for language, some strong violence, and drug content)
Directed By: Brady Corbet
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Stacy Martin
Written By: Brady Corbet
In Theaters: Dec 7, 2018 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Mar 5, 2019
Runtime: 112 minutes
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR VOX LUX:
Beautifully directed by the former actor Brady Corbet…this is a dark and sometimes unnerving dissection of contemporary culture, and the violence and sensuality that drive it.
An unflinching cautionary tale on the price of fame.
A dark star is born in this intriguing if weirdly anticlimactic and undeveloped new film from Brady Corbet.
But unlike many show-off stylists, [Corbet] rarely becomes monotonous, thanks to his dedication to catching the audience off-guard.