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Review: Vox Lux

December 22, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The second feature directed by Brady Corbet, an actor who made his directorial debut in 2015 with The Childhood of a Leader, Vox Lux focuses on the anatomy of a modern pop star whose life has been impacted by violence.

The first half of the film focuses on our protagonist Celeste as a teenager (Raffey Cassidy), who survives a school shooting at her prestigious music academy. When she performs a song that she wrote at a memorial for the victims, she catches the attention of a slick manager (Jude Law), who uses her image as an innocent victim to turn her into a wholesome teen starlet.

The second half of Vox Lux jumps forward two decades to focus on Celeste as an adult (Natalie Portman), who has gained fame as a pop star, but lives an empty life of excess. She has ascended to the top, but has long since entered the downfall portion of her career, having not put out a new album in quite some time. We follow her over a couple of days as she is trying to pick up the shambles of her fame-riddled life and struggling through addiction, while preparing for a comeback concert that is beset by tragic circumstances, when an international terrorist attack happens that is seemingly inspired by one of her music videos.

Corbet has described the first half of Vox Lux as minimalism and the second half as maximalism, and this is a very apt description. Both halves of the film play like distinctly separate wholes, and Corbet is more focused on showing a collection of moments that define Celeste’s life and career rather than offering up a traditional plot with a clear three act structure. The first half is made up of smaller, more intimate moments, while the second half unfolds mainly through big, extended sequences. There is a certain grandiosity to the film, with a soundtrack of pop bangers that are co-written by the real life pop star Sia, but Vox Lux also has an experimental tilt to it that makes it much harder to define.

The distinctive voice of Willem Dafoe interjects at key moments to offer existential narration, helping chart the course of Celeste’s career. Portman, who is the headlining star, doesn’t even show up until an hour into the film’s nearly two hour running time. When Portman does enter the picture, she instantly commands the screen, delivering an abrasive and oversized performance that is unlike anything she has done before. She is essentially playing a twisted, unholy cross between Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, and she kills it in the role. It’s fearless, unhinged work that is impossible to ignore.

The film can be loose and rambling at times, like a much darker cousin to Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, which also featured Portman. But somehow it all works, offering something explosive in the way that it explores the dark side of fame and the intersecting lines between tragedy and success. The main thesis behind Vox Lux is that it is a lust for fame, or rather infamy, that is the driving force behind mass shooters, terrorists and pop stars, with them all being spurred on by the increasing sensationalism of the media and the inherent nihilism of modern culture.

This is a bold idea, and a very provocative one to be sure, with the film drawing connections between how mass shooters are turned into their own twisted sort of celebrities by having their names and faces plastered everywhere, and the way that tabloids seek to exploit the personal lives of stars for their own financial gain. The paparazzi are constantly harassing Celeste, hoping to catch her in a more unhinged moment, and desperate to get salacious pictures of her to sell for cash.

These themes are further illustrated by the almost circular nature of how Corbet presents the opening and closing sequences as perverted inverses of each other. The opening scenes shock us with a school shooting that happens out of nowhere, staged in an extremely visceral way that is meant to induce panic in unsuspecting audiences. As Celeste is forced to stand up and confront the shooter, a fellow student who is himself desperate for attention and validation, she begs for him to let her go alive. Her life is spared, but did she give up her soul in the process, in a proverbial deal with the devil?

The film ends with another gripping sequence, presented in a way that is no less thrilling and cerebral, this time at an explosive concert where Celeste is performing for thousands of screaming fans, now being forced to stand up and confront the roaring monster that has been born out of her fame. She puts on one hell of a show, commanding the rapt attention of an audience who treat her like a god, gaining validation through their responses. But there is a sort of darkness to it as well, and the fact that her big break as a teenager happened precisely because of the shooting, not in spite of it, draws another inseparable line between this tragedy and her rise to the top.

Celeste’s music is pure pop escapism, and yet she wouldn’t even exist as a pop star if she hadn’t lived through the shooting, and she is acutely aware of this, with her addictions stemming from the fact that she is desperately trying to escape the trauma of her past. Did other people have to die for her to become a star? What are the costs of getting famous, and does one person’s success always come at the expense of many others? The film is unafraid of asking these questions, and not always in a direct way, but rather presenting them as things for the audience to think about long afterwards.

There is another, perhaps more obvious and less controversial, metaphor to the opening and closing scenes as well. We are witnessing a woman taking back her destiny, and channelling the pain of her past into something that she is able to control. Celeste refuses to be silenced by those who have physically and metaphorically tried to shut her up, and now stands as an almost immortal figure who has immense power over her audience. The fact that Celeste’s teenaged daughter is also played by Raffey Cassidy, the same actress who portrays her as a teenager, is not only an interesting casting choice, but also another clear example of the story’s circular nature.

This is an incendiary and extreme work that is guaranteed to polarize audiences both with its daring style and dark subject matter, and Vox Lux can be overwhelming to watch on a sensory level, but there is a lot to admire in the risks that Corbet takes. Natalie Portman absolutely rocks the role of a demanding diva, and the finale – which unfolds as an extended concert sequence – is dazzling.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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