Writer/director Brady Corbet presents his audience with two different versions of Vox Lux’s central character Celeste. And I don’t mean teenage Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and grownup Celeste (Natalie Portman) – SPOILERS! Two women play Celeste. The two versions I’m referring to exist before and after the traumatic incident that defines her young life and kicks off her musical career.
In one of 2018’s most chilling scenes, a teenage gunman walks into her middle-school music class and guns everyone down. Celeste survives the massacre, and as journalists descend on the story like vultures, she takes full advantage of the spotlight.
In the wake of the shooting, the town holds a vigil, and Celeste stands in front of the media and sings a song. That song becomes a survivor’s anthem, takes the country by storm, and propels her to the edge of stardom. From there, she picks up a savvy manager (Jude Law) who does everything in his power to capitalize on her success. It’s here where the film is at its best. We get an up-close look a burgeoning pop star’s life, and it’s far from glamorous, though, always intriguing. Corbet eventually time jumps 20-years into the future and reveals how Celeste’s tiny emotional fissures are now large cracks, destroying her relationships and shattering her spirit.
For Vox Lux to work its music must feel authentic. Nothing takes you out of a movie about a superstar musician faster than the music not living up to the hype. It’s like watching a film about a comedian on the rise even though his/her jokes aren’t funny. Celeste’s music is one area where the movie shines. The film recruited Sia, one of the world’s most gifted pop music writers to pen Celeste’s music. This woman knows a thing or three about composing a tune. Besides penning songs on her own smash albums, she’s written music for artists like Rihanna and Beyoncé.
Celeste’s songs sound like Sia’s music; they wouldn’t be out of place on today’s top 40 charts. What’s notable here isn’t the lyrics or the production (although they both work), it’s the performances. I don’t know how well Raffey Cassidy can sing, but her character isn’t a refined songstress. She can hold a note, sure, but lacks the chops to belt out a tune that can hang with the best of them. She isn’t bad but doesn’t have the talent to cut it in the industry, if not for her sob story.
Corbet’s specific choice here speaks to our warped love affair with celebrities, but specifically pop music stars; a genre where authenticity is not a highly valued commodity. Celeste’s talent matters less than the packaging she’s delivered in. Later, when Portman becomes Celeste 2.0, there’s a big musical set piece that closes out the film. With her shaky vocals, adult Celeste is still no Ariana Grande or Mariah Carey. She’s not even a Selena Gomez. But at this point, she’s so famous that people pay to be in her presence, not to hear a first-rate vocal performance.
Corbet with the help of his DP, Lol Crawley, excels at establishing a sense of mood. Vox Lux isn’t plot-heavy; instead, it wants to elicit intense reactions, like the rumble you feel in your bones when a subway train thunders through the tunnels beneath your feet. Whether it’s the hazy fugue of a drug stupor or making your blood run cold during a school shooting, Corbet finds dynamic ways to immerse you in every scene. He has a knack for knowing when and how to apply the right camera angle, the most visceral music queue, and the perfect jump cut.
You feel what Corbet wants to say long before your mind can articulate the words. His establishing shots alone tell one hell of a story. He presents New York as an urban jungle of steel and concrete, while LA is an endless sprawl of bright lights and wild nights. His work here reminds me of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s picture, Loveless. Like Loveless, you can watch Vox Lux with the sound off, and it still paints a vivid thematic portrait; a tale that’s cold, misanthropic, and scornful of its nation’s appetite for shallow indulgences.
Law is all kinds of as fun to watch as Celeste’s manager (listed on IMDb as, ‘The Manager’). He plays the character in two different eras, and you see differences in each performance. When we first meet him, he speaks with bluster and moves with swagger, but there’s a sweaty, greaseball desperation not far below his confident surface. He’s too wound up, too defensive, and too clingy. He acts like a pro, but he gives the impression that he’s dancing on the edge of irrelevance. Later, that desperation goes away, but so does his hunger and vigour. Clearly burnt out, he won’t let go of the rockstar life’s soft velvet coattails. He’s the type of rich and successful asshole who turns up dead in a sleazy motel, with a hooker, a shotgun, and liquefied nasil cavities.
Portman turns in the boldest performance of her career, going big as a Staten Island diva who feels less Lady Gaga than Carmela Soprano. Portman lays it on thick. Everything from her New Yawk drawl to her ass-rocking strut screams out how out of whack Celeste is. She’s a broken human being, barely held together by ambition, cheap wine, and amphetamines. The character is also a walking contradiction. She detests prying eyes but lives for attention, and now her life is a show both on and off the stage.
On the surface, this performance looks showy and untamed and borders on caricature. But I see more depth to the character. Celeste grows up physically, but fame and success leave her emotionally stunted. She becomes an adult in a world without boundaries, surrounded by yes men, sycophants, and enablers. We see this from an early age when her guardians reward her poor behavioue with a trip to LA. Adult Celeste says, “leave me alone,” while yearning for someone to manage her. And her outlandish behaviour keeps her inner-circle yo-yo-ing in and out of her orbit. She’s not bat-shit insane, she’s sly like a fox.
Vox Lux won me over before the title card planted itself on the screen and kept me locked in its cold embrace until the final credits. Corbet exhibits a dazzling display of filmmaking skills; striking compositions, clever edits, and a robust score that weighs on you like a thick wet blanket. That being said, the movie’s measured pacing, lack of plot, and vague resolution would bore my 20-year-old self into a coma. Your mileage will vary.
Two films into his filmmaing career, Corbet has carved out a niche as one of today’s most promising directors. Had this been the music industry, he would be the frontrunner in the ‘Best New Artist’ race. He still has a ways to go to reach the height of his powers. Corbet doesn’t tie all his themes together cohesively, but I enjoy how he comes at well-tread topics from compelling angles. He does more than tear into the ills of celebrity, he examines hero worship, myth-making, and how the callous gears of capitalism never cease churning out products for consumption. Wrapping these cutting themes in a gonzo Portman performance seals the deal. It’s like arriving at the award ceremony and moonwalking down the red carpet.