Director: Brady Corbet
Stars: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin
At the age of thirteen, Celeste is injured in a high school shooting. A bullet pierces her neck and remains lodged against a vertebrae. Appearing at a vigil for the dead, she performs a song co-written with her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin). The song goes viral. Celeste becomes a star. Though she lives and (arguably) thrives, Celeste wears a choker from then on, at first to provide support for her neck and later to mask her scars.
It’s a curious, even telling detail of the character. From then on her head and body are constantly separated from one another. She’s a decapitated person. A headless woman. The event becomes a punctuation mark of trauma in her life; a semi-colon if you will. Brady Corbet’s film implies that sudden fame is a traumatic thing, too. These closely aligned events change Celeste, literally. As an adolescent she is played by Raffey Cassidy (The Killing Of A Sacred Deer). As an adult, she is played by Natalie Portman.
What a maddening, fascinating, broken up film this is. As with Corbet’s directorial debut The Childhood Of A Leader it is knowingly, even risibly portentous. It’s divided into acts. It’s narrated by Willem Dafoe and has a score by the dear departed Scott Walker whose late career was defined by a steer toward the avant-garde. Corbet likely idolises him, along with former collaborator Lars Von Trier. The audience baiting sensibilities of both echo in Corbet’s work.
The prelude and opening act (in which young Cassidy shines) span three years, and we ride with Celeste through a number of important firsts. It feels like an austere answer to Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born. Throughout Corbet seeds the problems that will become compounded in his starlet’s later years; the rivalry with her sister; a dependence on painkillers; vanity. Then, Act II flashes forward fifteen years and Portman takes over. The change – appropriately – feels like whiplash. Act II – Regenesis – then reconfigures the tempo of the film. Where the first half cliff-noted years, the second half explores one afternoon. The collapse in pace nearly kills the thing.
On the eve of her homecoming performance following three terrible years, Celeste’s brand is connected with another mass-shooting. She vies with the press and the public and makes a number of mortifying decisions. Through these long scenes, we come to see how much of a trainwreck she has become. In a savvy move, Corbet encourages us to make such before/after comparisons by recasting Raffey Cassidy as Celeste’s teenage daughter Albertine. Celeste quickly comes to look like a warped funhouse reflection of her angelic former self.
Dafoe’s narration adds a curious element to proceedings, suggesting that Celeste’s story is unique or of some great historical importance. As though she will one day save the world through music (a la Bill & Ted) or, possibly, destroy it. This pomposity creates a nagging sense that there ought to be more to the story. But there isn’t. Vox Lux is a character piece, and said character is a distorted bitch. Portman chews it up with relish, reminding us that – when not moonlighting in fantasy franchises – she’s a lightning rod for interesting cinema.
It’s a shame, then, that Vox Lux is so front-loaded with impactful material. By the time Portman arrives, the thing has cooled some. Corbet opens in tremendous style. Lonely street lamps pock black pits of nighttime in a series of quite wonderful editorial non-sequitors. Cinematographer Lol Crawley and editor Matthew Hannam deserve serious credit for their contributions here.
Vox Lux also finds Corbet mixing it up. Where The Childhood Of A Leader was stifling precious, his follow-up throws in some handheld work. Granted, not much, but these less precious moments are welcome and allow the film to breathe. Less successful are time-consuming montages; Corbet speeds the film up, suggesting a painfully long director’s cut hidden in a closet somewhere.
This is a film filled with bad vibes. It’s hardly radical or revolutionary to posit that the pursuit of fame is an inherently corrupting enterprise, but Vox Lux goes further than this, sucking collective societal wounds into its vortex. The opening school shooting – taking place in 1999 – cuts deliberately close to Columbine, while the very action of the film is interrupted by the planes striking the World Trade Centre. These shockwaves ripple out into Celeste’s late-film interactions with the press. The persona she presents suggests that there is nothing left to believe in, other than the mirages made flesh by pop music and media content (whatever that means these days). In her words, “In this day and age who’d care?”. By the time Portman is in charge of the performance, Celeste has become so spun by high-concept soundbites, she seems to have constructed her own sci-fi worldview, one built – fittingly – entirely around herself. At her worst she is a grotesque, which may make Vox Lux a tough ask for some.
But this is energised, prickly, cocksure cinema. Corbet, his cast and his crew are all very obviously talented. Celeste’s songs are written by popstar Sia. And the climax of the film sees all traditional narrative melt away in the thrall of a song and dance show. Maybe Celeste is right? Maybe she is the epicentre of everything? The eye of the storm where you can just let go.
This is a vulgar, egotistical hate-fuck of a movie. And that’s a compliment.