Through the tumultuous existence of a pop star, writer/director Brady Corbet attempts to understand modern life with Vox Lux. His movie is alternately powerful and meaningless which may be the point. In-between, Natalie Portman puts on a show. Vox Lux wants to understand the 21st century and the intersection of fame and violence where so much of today’s culture takes place, but it offers few answers.
Divided into chapters and narrated by Willem Dafoe, Corbet frames his movie as a kind of educational character study. (The end credits subtitle the film A 21st-Century Portrait.) The story begins in New York City, 1999, where Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) miraculously survives a school shooting at age 14. She’s wounded, however, shot in the spine. In the aftermath, Celeste and her sister, Ellie (Stacy Martin), write and perform a song that eventually becomes “a hit,” as the Narrator tells us. Soon, Celeste is being mentored by a hotshot young manager (Jude Law) and her path to fame is paved.
Flash-forward to 2017, Celeste (Portman) is now 31, fully world famous, drug and alcohol addicted, and hugely cynical. The Narrator says the world is “gaudy and unlivable.” Another violent attack frames the narrative. Terrorists storm a beach wearing masks similar to those seen in a Celeste music video. The pop star is readying for a “rebirth” concert in her hometown, but is beset by questions about the incident. Meanwhile, she’s fallen out with her devoted sister and has a strained relationship with her daughter, Albertine (also played by Cassidy, in an inspired move).
Vox Lux isn’t about Celeste’s relationships, however. The script pays little mind to Ellie, Albertine, or Jude Law’s unnamed Manager, who eventually becomes Celeste’s lover as well. Corbet literally fast-forwards through expository bits that might’ve added depth to the film and he uses his narrator for the same purpose. We’re not supposed to love or identify with these people. We’re supposed to study them, to learn from them. Corbet is hoping to effect change.
Celeste tells us she’s an atheist, that the world does not reward morality, and that her fans should believe in her, not God. She says “everything new is horrible, but people love it anyway.” And she’s a brat, evidenced by her outburst when the Manager calls her one. Empty, soulless, and alone, Celeste is nevertheless worshipped by throngs of fans. Corbet ends the film with a 10-minute concert of Celeste performing onstage.
Corbet’s direction is thoughtful. He’s always been a thoughtful, envelope-pushing actor and his directing style is similar. In fact, his style contains many styles. His first act school shooting is a massacre straight out of a thriller. His handhelds backstage are like guerrilla documentary films. And then he inserts multiple music video sequences. Throw in an end credit roll over action near the beginning of the film and you’ve got quite an experience. This is a director of many talents.
The school shooting haunts Celeste her entire life and Corbet wants to understand why. But we know already. Americans do anyway. Unpredictable, incredible-scale violence is the new normal. We are all Celeste, running around believing in nothing and dancing to pop music instead of trying to change the status quo. The thing is — so what? Corbet’s got a tiger by the tail, but he he doesn’t know what to do with it.
Portman and Cassidy add life to Vox Lux with their shared role as Celeste. They both use a heavy Staten Island accent that may not pass the snuff test locally, but at least they sound like each other. It’s scary how similar their accents are. Portman also performs all the movie’s original songs (written by executive producer Sia). She’s larger than life in this movie and you believe it. It’s all in her swagger and thousand dollar makeup. Portman’s presence and Corbet’s ambition add up to a lot in Vox Lux. But the film remains somewhat empty itself. It may be a mirror of society today, but that’s not always enough.
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