(USA, 110 min.)
Written and directed by Brady Corbet
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Jennifer Ehle, Stacy Martin, Willem Dafoe
1999. A year of pop music, tragedy, and violence.
It was the year of Columbine, The Matrix, and moral panics about Marilyn Manson and black trench coats. Kids everywhere sold their souls to Satan at the turn of the new Millennium and cashed in their morals before Y2K killed them all. It was the year of “Living La Vida Loca” and “Mambo Number 5” and a new dawn for pop music with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera mixing sauce and sugar.
Back in 1999, Brady Corbet was only 11 years old. Corbet, now 30, brings the vision of a millennial whose life has inevitably been shaped by this OCD time stamp of violent tragedies and synthetic pop music. His new love-it-or-hate-it film Vox Lux is a devilishly audacious tableau of pop rock violence. The film reverberates with the ethos of a generation that lost its innocence well before 9/11 and for whom trashy pop music provided a blessed escape from the everyday hell of going to school when simply sitting through math class made one a sitting duck for target practice. Corbet muses upon the dawn of America’s cultural identity in the age of hyper-celebrity and ephemeral fame with this innovative character study that dazzlingly juggles camp and deliriously nonsensical pretension.
Corbet is nothing if not original as a new filmmaker with his strong visual sense that draws from European art cinema and mixes with the American pop culture influences. The mere structure of Vox Lux makes it far more interesting than most offerings by sophomore directors. The film is a tale told in a two-act structure complete with prologue, epilogue, and omniscient narrator. (It even has the full credit scroll in the opening act, just to sweeten the pot.) The tale, told by Willem Dafoe in dryly-cheerful voiceover, begins with a violent shattering of a young girl’s innocence when Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives a brutal school shooting in which her classmate dons some freaky contact lenses and storms her music class with an automatic weapon. The shooting is brutally violent—I literally jumped in my seat and gasped even though I knew it was coming—and the visceral shot of the carnage is hard to endure. Corbet thankfully gives us a moment to recover as the credits roll and the camera follows an ambulance carrying Celeste to safety before showing her rebirth in Act I.
The tragedy of the shooting at Celeste’s school, however, differs from Columbine in that her name graces the headlines in the aftermath. Instead of fixating on the killers, America becomes obsessed with a young girl who survived and used her voice to call for peace and forgiveness. Celeste, a budding singer, becomes an overnight sensation when she expresses her pain through a song and the TV cameras capture it for the nation to see.
Celeste skyrockets to fame and becomes a pop idol and an icon for the nation’s resilience. Shaking her teenaged booty in outrageous videos and exhausting herself with the grind of the job, Celeste gives in to the temptations of celebrity while on tour with her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) and sketchy manager (Jude Law). Celeste struggles with the same over-produced and overly-poppy bastardization of an artist that Ally encounters in A Star is Born, making music about assess and jeans while putting her own booty on display in music videos that don’t really showcase her talents. Corbet punctuates the turning point in Celeste’s career with the USA’s next chapter, 9/11, which coincides with the loss of the young woman’s virginity and a breach of trust that divides the sisters.
Flash-forward 17 years later and Celeste, now played by Natalie Portman in a performance of bravura batshit craziness, is still on top of the charts. She is Lady Gaga by way of Nina Sayers, an undeniably talented phenomenon with a dark side. Portman pushes the barriers of her character’s likability, yet Celeste dazzles even as a hot mess hardened by fame. Act II of Vox Lux takes place on one fateful day as Celeste readies to launch her latest world tour, which threatens to be overshadowed by another act of senseless violence, and takes lessons from her publicist (a terrific Jennifer Ehle) on how best to contain the situation. Corbet seems to be having a lark in Act II sending up the machine that creates celebrities and puts wheels in constant motion to keep them atop the charts. Celeste’s day is an over-caffeinated grind of image maintenance, confrontational round tables, and convincing everyone, including herself, that she is still an artist.
Much of Act II plays out in real time as Celeste visits with her daughter, Albertine, in a lunch is that is an epic disaster of parent-child reunions. Celeste, knocking back cheap white wine in a plastic cup before noon, plays the game of spin and misdirection well even without her publicist. Celeste’s vulgarity feels especially pronounced in the reactions of her daughter, who is played by Raffey Cassidy in a dual turn that highlights the young actress’s dramatic chops. Cassidy’s continued presence causes momentary disorientation but provides a nice contrast with Portman’s take on Celeste to show how much the character has changed.
Portman chews the scenery with spectacular gusto playing up Celeste’s prima donna routine while milking every possible ounce of sympathy she can from the tragedy in order to put her needs over her daughter’s. If there’s one word that matters in Celeste’s vocabulary, it’s “me.” Portman exudes confidence as a star who shines bright and knows it.
Decked out in a David Bowie-ish haircut, loud outfits reminiscent of early-career Gaga, and brightly lacquered nails that recall a trailer park hussy, Celeste embodies celebrity in its most vulgar form. The eloquent and soft-spoken girl of Act I is now an unbearably loud boor who accentuates every syllable of her diction as if it’s a loud bubble of chewing gum popped obnoxiously loud for dramatic effect. Portman accentuates the adolescence of her character to embody a girl who can’t quite decide how to grow into her fifteen minutes of fame.
The grand finale, however, provides audiences the best evidence of Celeste’s journey from singer to star. The Epilogue is a full concert set with some energetically staged song numbers as Celeste performs tracks from her new album, Vox Lux. The film features an enthralling playlist of poppy EDM numbers, written by SIA and performed by Portman, that are anthems to love and fame.
Portman’s overly auto-tuned voice lets the bastardization of the young artist speak for itself, but that assumes that Celeste was even an artist at all. As the concert progresses and the glittery Celeste belts out power ballads and busts some fancy moves to feverishly great dance anthems, it’s obvious that Celeste is a born performer who owns the stage and thrives in the spotlight. Let the set play out in full before casting judgement, since it all comes together in a final bit of narration as Dafoe closes the tragedy with a line that reveals the price Celeste unapologetically paid for fame. She has nothing to say beyond a clear and emphatic assertion of her own greatness. It’s difficult to leave Vox Lux without being under the little monster’s spell.
Vox Lux opens in theatres on Dec. 21.