This article was originally published on Film Threat (November 14, 2018).
Vox Lux: A Twentieth Century Portrait ambitiously tackles pertinent issues and fears that plague our society today. This flashy film and its loaded storyline create an unexpected and paralleled paradox. The visage of a glitzy and glamorous pop-musical drama masks an intense indie socio-political study on the effects acts of terror have on our youth and culture. Brady Corbet has crafted a perplexing, unnerving, haunting, and overbearing piece about lost souls and their extreme desperation for attention.
Willem Dafoe eerily narrates the film, which is divided into three acts chronicling Celeste’s unconventional journey to stardom, the toxic effects caused by a rock star lifestyle, and her epic efforts to reclaim her iconic diva status. Raffey Cassidy impressively pulls double-duty as young Celeste and her future teenage daughter, Albertine. In both roles, the English actress exudes maturity and captures her characters’ plight with nuance. Natalie Portman lives up to the hype. She delivers a gripping, raw, bold and juicy performance as Celeste, a troubled, straight-shooting and washed-up ingenue on the brink of a daring and dazzling comeback.
As little girls, Celeste and her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) would playfully make music together. Tragedy shockingly catapults a newly teenaged Celeste into fame when she survives a school shooting. The sisters’ love of music provides solace, therapy, and hope as she gradually recovers from a spine injury. Together, they write and perform a song during a vigil to honor the victims. This innocent and inspirational act changes the course of their lives.
“…the toxic effects caused by a rock star lifestyle, and her epic efforts to reclaim her iconic diva status.”
Jude Law comes on board as Celeste’s charmingly protective and pull-no-punches manager, while Jennifer Ehle acts as her reserved, strategic and financially driven publicist. Eleanor tags along as a chaperone when they endeavor to turn young Celeste into a pop star and travel abroad. Once again, she matures quicker than other girls her age and Eleanor lovingly helps with the learning curve. We get a taste of what her career and lifestyle will become, so Corbet fast forwards 15 years to present day Celeste. We are about halfway into the movie when Portman makes her boisterous entrance as this larger-than-life character.
Celeste is only in her early 30s and she’s already in need of a comeback. Fame can be cruel. All of her mistakes become tabloid fodder, paparazzi follow her around, she has a contentious relationship with her daughter, and she is on rocky terms with her sister. We learn how she has overcome more obstacles and struggles with expected vices, but she is still a fighter. She decided to set certain priorities in her life and strives to achieve every goal, no matter the cost.
Pop culture and violence coincide at pivotal moments in Celeste’s life. The social and political commentary is overtly conveyed. Vox Lux has a lot going on – indie feeling artfulness, the ominous narration, Shakespearian overtones and narrative division, and the brash juxtaposition of art and terror. Singing pop songs and opening fire on unsuspecting people are both forms of performance resulting in a claim to fame. Corbet set lofty goals for himself and it sometimes feels like he is trying too hard to articulate his message in a profound way.
Instead of subtle symbolism, Corbet drills his message into the audience’s consciousness with glaring choices. The film’s (also her comeback album’s) title and protagonist’s name hold the most obvious meaning. “Vox Lux” translates to “Voice of Light” in Latin and “Celeste” means “heavenly” in French. We get it. This angelic girl served as a beacon of hope in the face of tragedy, but pop culture corrupted her. Celeste’s innocence is sacrificed for fame. She made a choice when she was young and stuck with it. Her life in the spotlight has been far from a dream, but she still wouldn’t change a thing.
“…bewildering and the audience will probably have mixed feelings.”
Even the Sia songs selected for the film have subliminal meanings. To be clear, Sia did not write these songs specifically for the film. Instead, she offered previously written unreleased songs to be used in the film. As a fan of Sia’s music, these songs are not as gripping as I hoped. I thought I’d want to run out and get a copy of the soundtrack after seeing the movie, but I didn’t. Maybe it takes time for the songs to grow on you since it takes a few listens to fully grasp their intention. When the film reached the climactic comeback concert performance, I was underwhelmed by the songs and staging.
Vox Lux is bewildering and the audience will probably have mixed feelings. In my experience, head-scratching, puzzled murmurs, and pensive looks filled the theater as viewers tried to make sense of what we just watched. There was even a long awkward pause when the panel asked for questions. It took a moment to digest everything before forming inquiries.
We can understand the point Corbet is making – violence has been glorified, tragedy spawns celebrity, society has become desensitized, and youth culture turns to famous people for guidance and escapism. It is all very strange, upsetting, and mind-boggling (both in reality and in the film.)
Ultimately, we are left feeling uneasy. Especially when there is a heavy and thematically altering twist dropped on us at the very end, which offers another layer of interpretation to the film. To Corbet’s credit, it is a think piece. However, all thoughts may not be so kind to his efforts.
Vox Lux (2018) Written and directed by Brady Corbet. Starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Jennifer Ehle, Stacy Martin, Christopher Abbott, Willem Dafoe. Vox Lux screened at the 2018 Mill Valley Film Festival.
7 out of 10 stars