In a year full of music-themed films, this is quite possibly the most hypnotizing.
Writer/Director Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux tells the rather unusual story of a woman named Celeste Montgomery, and the story is split up into two sections, along with both a prelude and a finale. The prelude shows Celeste growing up as a child and attending school. One day, while in music class, a student comes in with a gun and shoots up the entire room, and although Celeste survives, a stray bullet hits her, resulting in spinal damage. This leads into the second act, titled “Genesis,” where, while recovering in the hospital, Celeste and her sister, Ellie, compose a song. When they perform it together at the televised vigil for the shooting victims, they capture the attention of the world and, under the guidance of their manager (Jude Law), are brought into the world of pop music. It doesn’t take long until Celeste begins her somewhat downward spiral into the psychologically damaging realm of the pop scene, including frequent partying and sleeping around with other musicians.
Eventually, the audience catches up with Celeste in the second half, titled “Regenesis,” in which she is a world-renown pop sensation, similar to Sia (who wrote some of the film’s songs). She is estranged from her sister, and also has a distant relationship with her own daughter, whom she had with a musician when she was young. At the start of this act, a mass shooting occurs in Croatia, committed by people wearing masks in the likeness of Celeste. Now Celeste must battle her personal demons, the paparazzi, and the decision of whether or not to cancel a show happening on the day of the attack.
This is not a mainstream film. It has a haunting atmosphere, and some scenes are rather intense, specifically the opening sequence with the school shooting. Not one moment of this scene feels manufactured or predictable, and Corbet’s vision seems rather unconventional. Even the opening credits appear in an elongated scroll, similar to the credits in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It is more than likely that the film and the events that occur in it might turn off many moviegoers, but I was fascinated.
As a whole, this film feels like an album cover one has to look closely at to see the detail and clues hidden within the artwork, only in this case, we are looking at the artist herself. To have a better understanding of the power of this film, one would have to look at the timeline of some events. The school shooting occurs in 1999, the same year the Columbine High School massacre occurred. In the second act, Celeste mentions that a plane crashed into a building, alluding to 9/11. While it might be in poor taste to have events like these included or depicted in film, it works well in this one, because it is a commentary on modern celebrity, and how tragedy and trauma can influence one. As a result of the combination of grief, both personal and public, Celeste morphed from an innocent child into a cold, and sometimes heartless, pop music machine that is struggling to navigate through her already demanding career.
What is commendable about Vox Lux is that it doesn’t spell out the story for the audience, which is interesting given the presence of an expository narrator, voiced by Willem Dafoe. His narration compensates for certain important elements of Celeste’s story that are unseen, and this could hurt the film. Surprisingly, though, it doesn’t, because it instead forces the audience to read the body language of Celeste, as well as the other characters, and see the effect of their respective trauma.
Natalie Portman is arguably one of the most distinguished actresses working today. In any role, she is instantly charming the minute that she appears on screen, and not even the likes of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium or the Star Wars prequels can shake her easy charisma. Here, the audience gets to hear Portman professionally sing for the first time. Many of us already saw her rap songs on Saturday Night Live, and she has enough charisma to carry a number, and she does so here with gusto.
The one major flaw in these musical performances is the sound mixing; it feels unfinished, and the vocals are barely audible. This weakness, however, metaphorically suggests that Celeste’s inner voice still can’t be heard, as she is still lost in the image that continues to precede her.
Special praise should also be reserved for young Raffey Cassidy, who plays young Celeste. She handles her scenes splendidly, and her singing voice is commendable for an actress her age. It is also interesting that Cassidy also plays Celeste’s daughter, Albertine, as it gives the sense that Celeste, while trying to guide her own life through scandals and paparazzi, has to also make sure her daughter (who we learn also lost her virginity to a musician) doesn’t suffer her same fate, even though Celeste is not doing the best job at it.
While watching this film, I was struck by how much it reminded me of the most recent version of A Star is Born, starring Lady Gaga. While Gaga’s character, Ally did not have to go through the sort of tribulation that Celeste endured (save for maybe having to dance while dealing with physical pain), it does evoke the same soul-crushing nature of the pop-music industry. One can just feel Celeste’s humanity slipping away with every single controversy she deals with, and the music industry continuing to consume her. Well, if A Star Is Born is the Hollywood version of the pop star story, then Vox Lux is certainly the art house version.
Vox Lux will probably be a turn off for some filmgoers, but it is so raw and atmospheric, that it deserves recognition. Natalie Portman is in top form in her role as Celeste, and the rest of the cast lend great support to Brady Corbet’s unconventional vision. You will get some spectacle by the end of this film, no doubt, but be prepared to take a good look at the entertainer and see if you can still look at pop music with a smile on your face.
The film is now playing.