Film Review: Vox Lux

Anchored by Natalie Portman’s fiery performance, Brady Corbet’s accomplished and timely sophomore feature wrestles with interwoven curiosities around media, pop culture, celebrity and violence.
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With the provocative The Childhood of a Leader, a splendid period piece of gloriously dark visuals and pessimistic echoes of today, actor-turned-director Brady Corbet delivered a rare first film that announced the arrival of a gifted auteur. A singular movie that stays in the mind, Childhood both disturbs and astonishes with its abstract imagining of a future fascist leader’s evil roots. The writer-director successfully follows that remarkable debut with Vox Lux, a quasi-biopic of a fictional Lady Gaga-like pop star, who is beset by tragedy at a young age but rapidly climbs to stardom.

Corbet’s sophomore effort might seem a bit green in its interwoven arguments around media, pop culture, celebrity obsession and society’s increasingly violent leanings. He might have bitten off a bit too much here, but his effort impresses with its scale and emotional scope. In fairness, one can’t blame the filmmaker for being preoccupied with the dreary state of affairs today—if anything, there is sincerity in his relatable inexactness as he attempts to understand contemporary acts of senseless carnage.

Told in chapters with a commanding voiceover narration by Willem Dafoe (at times force-feeding a sense of authority into the film), Vox Lux begins with a bone-chilling prologue. We meet the middle-school-aged Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) in 1999 (unsubtly, the year of the Columbine massacre) on the worst day of her life, as a gun-toting schoolmate enters her classroom and kills her friends at random. Celeste briefly manages to make him pause with a naïve offer to pray together. She is shot nevertheless, but the sweet-natured girl miraculously survives the bloody incident. Alongside her older and more talented sister Ellie (Stacy Martin), the shell-shocked Celeste performs a tribute song at a memorial service for the victims—an original track composed by the duo (written by Sia, like all the other songs in the film). In the section of the film titled “Act 1: Genesis,” the duo become an overnight sensation, landing a pretentious manager (Jude Law) and a publicist (Jennifer Ehle, looking slightly out of place), and turn their gaze to the future with cautious hope.

Showing the aftereffects of her trauma in her monotonous speech pattern and attitude, Celeste continues her climb in the pop world as we cut to 2017 and “Act 2: Regenesis.” Here, she is all grown up in the body of Natalie Portman, who wears not only Black Swan-like makeup, but the physical and mental scars of her younger self, to eerie effect. Celeste still works alongside her composer sister (oddly, Stacy Martin again) and raises a challenging teenager (Cassidy again), who understandably doesn’t get along with her difficult, world-famous parent. The 2017 Celeste, perhaps bitterly mirroring the even grimmer world she now lives in, seems to have become a prickly and rather spoiled pop-culture goddess with a precious attitude and a curious accent. She sidelines her supportive sister and can’t seem to get her daughter on her side. Then, with no apparent logic, a violent terrorist attack occurs in Croatia, carried out by gunmen wearing unmistakably Celeste-inspired glam-masks, on the day of her big “return concert” (following a scandal) to promote her new album, Vox Lux.

With this left-field development, Corbet tries to express the circular nature of violence, indirectly linking Celeste to the kind of mass shooting she once suffered through. While his concept is under-baked, this is a filmmaker who doesn’t shy from aiming high in his exploration of mankind’s loss of innocence. In the world of Vox Lux, everyone, both icons and regular civilians, is vulnerable to personal demons and societal decay. Paired with the work of his repeat collaborators—Lol Crawley’s sumptuous camerawork and Scott Walker’s distressing original score among them—Vox Lux further establishes Corbet as an exciting craftsman and risk-taker whose films will always be worthwhile for their curiosity even when their message feels less than complete.