The ideas are aplenty in Vox Lux, as are the choices, very specific choices made by writer-director Brady Corbet and star Natalie Portman. The film – a histrionic take on the poisonous aspects of fame and the perniciousness of violence in all areas of American culture, amongst other things – is divided into two distinct halves. In the first half, a young girl suffers a horrible tragedy which she then is able to turn into pop superstardom. The second half, that girl is an adult of monolithic fame who has become undone emotionally and psychologically by the toxic nature of that same superstardom. I can see the logic of how these halves are meant to have a dialogue with one another, but the execution is so uneven, both in skill and quality, and only one of them has Portman, a perfect metaphor for what is happening throughout Vox Lux.
She plays Celeste Montgomery, an interesting cross-breed of Madonna’s showmanship, Beyonce’s sense of royalty, Lady Gaga’s esoteric taste for presentation, and Courtney Love’s self-destruction. At the beginning of Vox Lux, Celeste is played by Raffey Cassidy (who some may remember as the daughter from The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and the film opens with her being one of many victims of a school shooting in her hometown of New Brighton, NY in 2000. With her older sister, Ellie (Stacy Martin), she composes a song to sing at the memorial soon after. The moment captures the nation, and arouses interest from record companies who want to market Celeste as the new major pop performer. She hires a dedicated, bull-like manager (Jude Law) and records a demo.
As the film hops in time to 2017, Celeste is then played by Portman, and Cassidy remains in the film, this time as the singer’s young daughter, Albertine. All other characters remain with the same actors, aged very little, which is just one of the dizzying details of Vox Lux‘s entire aesthetic. The film’s last fifty minutes becomes something of a two-act play, taking place in one day where Celeste plans to open a new mega-tour in her New Brighton home. The entire sequence is dominated by Portman who stomps around hotel rooms and lobbies, pulling up her sleeves and sucking on lozenges. By this point, no other performer can really hope to get a word in, as Portman devours the scenery, wielding a Staten Island accent like a blunt instrument of rage and fear. It’s a performance that becomes admirable despite itself.
At the heart of Vox Lux is the story of a woman desperate for autonomy in her professional life, deciding from her young beginnings that she will be the one that will dictate her success. By the time she’s an adult, she’s become blind to all the sacrifices she’s had to make to achieve this, and has been consumed by the obligations of her celebrity. Her relationships with her daughter and sister are strained at best, volatile at worst. Her dependence on painkillers from her past injuries has led to substance abuse problems, including meth and alcohol. Her manager (and it should be said that Law is also supplied with a grinding, obtuse accent) seems more enabler than confidante, a constant threat of nefarious sex for all the women in Celeste’s life, including herself.
There are times when Corbet deftly weaves through these themes with stylish flair, but more often the film gets entangled by its own artistry – which might be the point. He does provide us with a cryptic, omnipotent narrator (voiced by Willem Dafoe) who occasionally holds are hand through the muddle when he isn’t outright explaining a specific narrative obscurity. Vox Lux is interesting as a comment on the drug of celebrity, but less interesting when it tries to tie it into larger American ideas involving gun violence, especially considering the sloppy way in which Corbet attempts to connect the dots (a throwaway line by Dafoe’s narrator that posits 9/11 as a major piece to Celeste’s rise to fame both rings hollow and feels outrageous). By the film’s conclusion, we are privy to a concert of songs we have no relationship with.
It’s quite handsome as a piece of filmmaking, and it’s obvious Corbet is prepared to be adventurous with editing and camerawork, but Vox Lux‘s narrative feels at times too adventurous, or perhaps not adventurous at all. It tosses everything in the air and expects the audience to clean up the mess. Its performances are strong, especially Cassidy who nails two different parts by realizing that the film benefits by them being nearly the same. Portman, the film’s star, shines brightly, almost blindingly, but I preferred this exhibition of inflammatory affectation to Jackie which was packaged in too tight a casing. You watch Portman in a performance like this and you get the sense that this is what she really wants to do, whether she’s successful in it or not (and here, she’s both).
I have much more admiration for Vox Lux then I do actual affection. Its ambitions feel pure and courageous, and part of me believes that Corbet will enjoy all of the questions it will leave you with (What is the film’s consideration of pop music? How much does American violence and American celebrity truly overlap? Why, oh why, do we have to listen to these accents?). Its story and characters are captivating in and of themselves, but the movie begs to be taken more seriously than mere entertainment. Or does it? The question-and-answer ouroboros drives Vox Lux and oftentimes frustrates it.
Written and Directed by Brady Corbet