Vox Lux

Director: Brady Corbet
Screenplay: Brady Corbet
Stars: Natalie Portman (Celeste Montgomery), Raffey Cassidy (Young Celeste / Albertine), Jude Law (The Manager), Stacy Martin (Eleanor “Ellie” Montgomery), Jennifer Ehle (Josie), Willem Dafoe (The Narrator), Maria Dizzia (Ms. Dwyer), Meg Gibson (Mrs. Montgomery), Daniel London (Father Cliff), Micheal Richardson (The Musician), Matt Servitto (Mr. Montgomery), Leslie Silva (The Stylist)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2018
Country: U.S.
Vox Lux
Vox Lux

Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux is an ambitious, unwieldy, and ultimately confounding portrait of artistic ascent and moral decline in the high-stakes world of pop music. It’s been a packed year for such stories, as Vox Lux joins Bradley Cooper’s reimagined A Star is Born and the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, both of which also relate the timeless arc of musical stardom in which an unknown with great talent is thrust into the spotlight and finds him- or herself challenged by the temptations within it. What makes Vox Lux intriguing, especially in a season featuring several other narratively similar films, is the manner in which its protagonist comes to be in the spotlight and how it essentially skips over the moral descent via a 16-year temporal leap. Corbet, a former child actor-turned-writer/director, is going after something big and serious and compelling, and he wants to play it for maximum ambiguity, which ultimately leaves us grasping at straws, rather than ruminating on character or questions of moral complexity. The droll, fatalistic narration by Willem Dafoe—which is evocative of both a dark fairy tale and a rock mockumentary—provides ample context and a framework for making sense of the narrative action, but the film still comes across as thematically and emotionally jumbled—a collection of good ideas whose potential never quite makes it.

In the film’s opening sequence, billed “Prelude: 1999” on a title card, we meet the film’s protagonist, Celeste, when she is a teenager too young to drive (Raffey Cassidy). In the film’s riveting, horrifying opening sequence, she is the sole survivor of a school shooting that leaves an entire classroom of teenagers, a teacher, and the shooter dead. We see that Celeste is a gentle and spiritual soul, as her response to the initial burst of violence is concern about the teacher who has been shot, and then she offers to pray with the shooter. She is shot in the neck, but survives with a bullet lodged in her spine.

We then move to “Act I: Genesis 2000–2001,” where, at a candlelight vigil for the victims, Celeste gets onstage and sings a song she wrote with her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin). As the narrator informs us, the song goes viral and becomes an anthem, which naturally gets the attention of the music industry, embodied by a terse, nameless manager (Jude Law) who takes Celeste and starts molding her into a pop star. Accompanied by Ellie, Celeste takes it all in stride, recording new songs, taking dance lessons, travelling to Europe to record with a mega-producer. Along the way we begin to see the seeds of her personal and moral decline, as the soft-spoken teenager who gently chides the manager for cursing in front of her, starts experimenting with alcohol and drugs and gets involved with a cynical punk rocker (Micheal Richardson)—experiences that find their way into her increasingly sexualized music.

We then leap forward 16 years to the film’s second half, billed “Regenesis 2017.” We see that Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman), has become a hardened veteran of pop stardom; all traces of her formerly gentle, sweet persona have been ground away by the nearly two decades of living in the limelight. On the cusp of releasing a new album (which supplies the film’s Latin title, which means “Voices of Light”) and launching a world tour, Celeste’s past is brought back to the surface when a group of terrorists in Croatia wearing masks made famous in one of her music videos shoot up a beachside resort. Again associated with an act of wanton, inexplicable violence, Celeste finds herself having to speak on the world stage, except this time she doesn’t have the benefit of true innocence. Instead, she must act as a mouthpiece for broad platitudes designed to ensure no impact on her profitability, which her cynicism ultimately undermines.

We learn that she is still working with Jude Law’s manager, as well as a savvy publicist played by Jennifer Ehle. What has changed is that she has a teenage daughter named Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy), who has been raised primarily by Ellie, who has dedicated herself to Celeste’s career but has become increasingly estranged from the sister with whom she was once so close. In other words, all of the genuine connections that Celeste once had to family and faith have all been ground away, and what is left is a shell of a woman going through the motions of pop stardom while walking a live-wire on the edge of complete meltdown. Her anger is seething, and at various points she blows up at a restaurant manager wanting to take a picture with her, a journalist who asks questions she doesn’t appreciate, and Ellie, who is clearly used to bearing the brunt of her anger.

Portman plays Celeste with a streak of silver in her slicked back hair and lots of heavy eye makeup, a thick Staten Island brogue (it is as if her personal hardness has increased her accent), and a sourness that infects her every interaction. Portman is a gifted actress with a string of great roles stretching back to her debut as a violently orphaned 12-year-old who finds solace and protection with an assassin in Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional (1994), and as recently as her resplendent, finely attuned performance as JFK’s widow in Jackie (2016). I can’t remember Portman having played a character quite this hard before, and she doesn’t do it particularly well. Her performance feels overly mannered and affected; at every moment we can feel her acting, except, interestingly, when she takes the stage and performs her music (which was written and performed by Sia). Portman looks at home playing a pop star doing her thing, and perhaps that is why Corbet decided to dedicate the last 15 minutes of the film to a Celeste concert, leaving virtually all dramatic issues unresolved. Corbet clearly wants to maintain a certain level of ambiguity while also hinting that there is hope in the moral decay, but by the time we get to the climactic concert, everything has become so murky that it’s hard to draw out what he’s trying to say about anything other than the hardly revelatory observation that stardom is a drag on one’s soul.

Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

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