Vox Lux appears to be a scathing commentary on the cynical pop music industry (and the cynical nature of fame in contemporary culture) while simultaneously being a sympathetic endorsement of the pop star as a burdening position of symbolic courage and confidence. These two narrative aims clash throughout Brady Corbet’s film, causing both tension and befuddlement.
The immediate callousness is the toughest pill to swallow, and it is a callousness that follows through the remainder of the film. If you can stomach the abrasiveness, then Vox Lux may resonate on your wavelength as the bracing experience that Corbet intends. If not, it will likely make you feel empty.
In the glib, stilted opening—it recalls Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, without the intense buildup—a classmate of young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) initiates a brutal school shooting. Celeste, after attempting to calm the shooter and save her peers, is shot in the neck.
For the rest of the film, save for one shot, Celeste will wear some sort of covering around her neck, hiding the scar from the world that is watching her intently as she rises to a place of pop stardom. Halfway through, Celeste will move 16 years into her future and be portrayed by Natalie Portman. (Her character’s daughter, in a strange casting choice, is played by Cassidy, which will put in stark relief the differences in their performances).
Cassidy takes the character in a transformative direction. It is this good-girl-gone-bad, innocence in the process of disintegration turn. It is a quietly riveting performance.
Portman takes this transformation beyond its limits, shifting Celeste into a drastic, histrionic, Staten-Island-born-and-bred prima donna that is hard to see in the younger incarnation.
As jarring as this shift is, it is hard to deny Portman’s presence in the disastrous lead-up to and performance of her homecoming concert. There is tragedy in her fall from grace—if you can call it that—evidenced in the weight of Portman’s intoxicated frenzy. But the jarring shift in the film’s narrative, from its first to second half, does not complement the tragic arc.
Split into two acts—“Genesis” and “Regenesis”—there is a confusing turn that muddies the creative intent. “Genesis” is a less-starry-eyed A Star is Born story, a meteoric rise of a pop star whose fate lies at the hands of the morally bereft industry that is providing her her fame.
The second act wishes to carry the torch of this story over to Portman, but her character has been perverted by the business or by her own ego to the point of no return. The film can either ridicule the fame industry or raise up its star as a tragic hero, thereby affirming the industry. I cannot tell which Corbet is trying to do, but, as it is written, it can’t be both.
Vox Lux has flourishes of cinematic loveliness in its on-stage lighting and camera angles, its choreography, and its costume design. The music, provided by Sia, is also quite great. But the film is burdened by a thematic weight that is hard to decipher. Its central character is both fascinating and inaccessible, in spite of being carried by two good performances.
The film is either portraying a vacant existence or is vacant in and of itself. If it is the former, it is unclear to what end. If it is the latter, that explains a lot.
When it comes to what people think about her, Celeste exclaims: “In this day and age: who cares.”
Too true. Why should the criticism matter?
Vox Lux: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)