With a riveting performance by Natalie Portman and toe-tapping bangers by Sia, this pop star epic dances to its own brilliant melody.
February 21, 2019
Fame's sharp edges have punctured the cinema screen several times of late. They cut deep in A Star Is Born's moving pop star epic, which tracked the ups and downs of celebrity with wrenching emotion and heightened drama. And they sliced superficially in Bohemian Rhapsody, as it neatly and cleanly explored Freddie Mercury's quest to remain true to himself as he stepped into the spotlight. In Vox Lux, the difficulties and complexities of success slash savagely and hack furiously, with Brady Corbet writing and directing a blunt yet brilliant onslaught of a movie. As he did in The Childhood of a Leader, the actor-turned-filmmaker relentlessly charts the ascension of an influential fictional figure who owes their rise to struggle and trauma. Perhaps unexpectedly, the difference between a troubled kid becoming a fascist ringleader in the former film and a shooting victim becoming a superstar singer in the latter is paper-thin.
Celeste is that singer and, as Willem Dafoe's all-knowing, somewhat ominous narration explains, her story is significant. Initially just an ordinary American girl, she grows up to be a victim, then a symbol — and then a star and a pariah. As a teenager (Raffey Cassidy) in 1999, she escapes a Staten Island school shooting with a bullet lodged in her spine and disturbing memories embedded in her brain. Savvy even in her darkest hours, the 13-year-old parlays her distress into a heartfelt ballad with her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin), sparking global attention and a prosperous music career under the guidance of an opportunistic manager (Jude Law). As a long-established public figure (Natalie Portman) in 2017, Celeste has since endured the rollercoaster ride that is fame, and is worse for wear for the experience. She's now a largely absent mother to her own teen (also played by Cassidy), and a target for the tabloids, especially after a terrorist attack is carried out by perpetrators wearing costumes from one of her early music videos.
Three acts of violence punctuate Vox Lux: the two mentioned above as well as 9/11. A classroom erupts with gunfire, ending Celeste's childhood. A plane hits the World Trade Centre, just as the rising star is farewelling her adolescence. A beach resort becomes the site of the world's latest massacre, all on the eve of Celeste's big comeback tour. Each incident proves the narrative equivalent to the sparing bursts of silence deployed by composer Scott Walker, punctuating his booming, needling orchestral score. They find further parallels in the soulful instances when cinematographer Lol Crawley peers closely at Celeste, lingers and truly sees her, rather than presenting the character as a product of her surroundings via mid and long shots. They're the moments when everything stops and changes, however Vox Lux is primarily concerned with the exact opposite. Tragedy strikes, and people are lost again and again, but life, pop music and celebrity worship all adapt, evolve and continue.
A tale of multiple chapters, periods and sources of pain, all operatically building to a huge pop concert finale, Vox Lux knows that the show will go on. It also knows that everything comes at a cost, especially the type of whirlwind that transforms Celeste from a mousy slip of a girl to a strutting, spiky, leotard-clad adult with a chip on her shoulder as broad as her newly adopted accent. Penetrating insight is baked into the movie's frames, as its protagonist turns trauma into success, then sees her success defined by, reactive to and almost reliant upon the world's seemingly never-ending cycle of trauma. When tragedy and popular culture have become irreversibly intertwined, there's no alternative. There's no reprieve, either.
As a result, when Portman's version of Celeste sings "I'm a private girl in a public world" during Vox Lux's third act (crooning bangers composed by Sia, who's responsible for all of the film's original pop tracks), it's the movie's most obvious observation. Still, it's also a powerful statement, recognising how hurt, despair, and humanity's darkest moments have become grist for the entertainment and escapism-driven mill that is our 21st-century existence. Corbet eschews subtlety for force, but he's smartly mirroring his subject matter. Everything that his film says about fame, celebrity, success, myth-making, trauma and public spectacle shouldn't come as a surprise. Yet there's knowing something, and then there's revelling in the crash, rush and mess that arises when a movie dissects its topic in such a provocative and piercing way.
For a filmmaker whose visuals demonstrate a love of control — with every inch of Vox Lux proving as slick and stylish as a music clip, and as enamoured with its own style as well — Corbet also clearly loves chaos. He loves making a splash, engineering a reaction, then waiting for the fallout he knows will eventuate. When bullets intrude upon a classroom and later a beach resort, it's jarring. When the film flits from near-stilted scenes of violence to glossy concerts — and from staring up at New York City buildings to watching the younger Celeste grapple with her injury — it bathes in the evident contrasts. And when Cassidy's shy portrayal of Celeste gives way to Portman's larger-than-life vision, it's similarly grating by design. Indeed, the movie's two versions of its fractured protagonist, as played to perfection by its lead actors, couldn't better encapsulate Corbet's overall approach. For better and for worse, Celeste shines in the space where the fragile meets the gleefully in-your-face, and so does everything else about the exceptional, memorable Vox Lux.