Director: Brady Corbet
Cast: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Jude Law
Running time: 110 minutes
A suitably unhinged Natalie Portman headlines the suitably unhinged Vox Lux: a film charting the meteoric rise of a fictional pop star from the late nineties to twenty-teens. The second directorial feature from actor-turned-filmmaker Brady Corbet — the notoriously difficult second album, should we say — offers a dark and disconcerting odyssey into the troubled existence of a global superstar who’s thrust into the limelight in the aftermath of extreme violence. Part satire, part tragedy, part social commentary, the film is a wholly fragmented and inconclusive foray, harmonising laughs and shocks to create a wild, uncomfortable, but always compelling, tale of fame and infamy.
Portman’s presence is withheld for the best part of an hour, however. The film instead begins its murky journey in 1999 — a year already significant in the history of high-school shootings — where a young boy shows up at a music lesson and mercilessly guns down the teacher before firing bullets at the teenage pupils. One of the students, 14-year-old Celeste (Cassidy), tries briefly to talk the shooter down, but is struck by a shot to the neck. She survives, but a scar remains.
While in recovery, during which she must relearn key motor skills, Celeste turns her attention to music. At a candle-lit vigil for the victims, she performs a song she and her sister, Eleanor (Martin) — seemingly riddled with guilt for not attending school on the day of the shooting — have written. As the flash of cameras illuminate the room, Celeste’s voice encapsulates the nation; a figurative rebirth that sets her on a course of life-changing stardom.
From there, as her fame begins to skyrocket, Celeste, with Eleanor in tow, travels to Europe under the watchful eye of assertive, passionate, paternal Manager (Law). But naïve adolescence soon creeps in and Celeste begins to dabble in drugs and a rather shady fling with a rock star, both of which significantly impact the film’s second act.
Cut to 2017, where the once wide-eyed Celeste is long gone, replaced by a now-adult superstar (Portman): a seasoned diva struggling to juggle public image, spiralling substance abuse and the responsibility of a teenage daughter (also played by Cassidy in a neat dual performance).
For all the glitz that surrounds Celeste’s star persona, Vox Lux’s portrait of pop music notoriety is far from glamorous. A jarring journey that is much less a glittery coming of age tale as it is a steep descent into the darker musings of what it means to be famous in the modern world. Retro-futuristic stage performances, complete with outlandish hairdos and slick, stylish dance routines, conceal a life of motherly inadequacy and wine from a takeaway cup. Both unlikeable and achingly vulnerable, capable of angry outbursts at restaurant staff one moment and tearful dressing room breakdowns the next, the grown-up Celeste appears to encapsulate everything rotten and superficial about the notion of the contemporary celebrity — the product of a lifestyle that makes her both hugely popular and painfully outcast. In Corbet’s ability to home in on his subjects while simultaneously pulling back toward the wider celebrity culture, Vox Lux offers both intimacy as well as a cutting broader focus. But it’s an assessment that the writer/director never offers in a single, neatly-packaged equation. Instead, despite a four-act structure and gravelly Willem Dafoe narration, Corbet’s film is one that is far from conclusive.
Juxtaposition chimes at every turn, from the harsh, vibrant colour pallet to the dark themes; from Scott Walker’s orchestral score to the Sia-penned pop pulp. Key moments in Celeste’s rise to the top are marked by acts of violence and death; from the opening school shooting, to 9/11, to a massacre on a beach not too dissimilar from the 2015 attacks at a Tunisian resort. It’s a bold parallel to draw, and one that’s sure to make the wildly engrossing Vox Lux wildly divisive.
Uncomfortably captivating, Vox Lux paints a dark but riveting pathway into the world of pop music. Think Aronofsky does Hannah Montana.