2018, R, 110 min. Directed by Brady Corbet. Starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Willem Dafoe.
REVIEWED By Danielle White, Fri., Dec. 14, 2018
In Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux a star isn’t so much born as forged and shaped by the blunt force of trauma. The film tells (quite literally, with gloomy narration by Willem Dafoe) of the rise and rebirth (don’t call it a comeback) of pop star Celeste (Cassidy/Portman) whose career begins when she catches media attention after a life-altering tragedy: In 1999, when Celeste is 13 (played by Cassidy) she survives a school shooting; she sings at a memorial for her fallen classmates, and a recording of the event essentially goes viral. It’s a cheap act of commodification that feels ahead of its time. From that point on, Celeste is never seen unadorned by a thick collar, usually shiny, that covers up an injury she sustained in the shooting. It’s at once primely ancient – a gold choker for an Egyptian queen – yet robotic and futuristic. In a scene on a rooftop balcony, set to a melodramatic score, Celeste tells a new lover that she likes creating pop music because she doesn’t want people to have to think too hard; she just wants them “to feel good.”
Yet there’s nothing feel-good about this story – even moments that should be hopeful, like when Celeste first goes to NYC with her sister (Martin) and manager (Law) to shop record labels, the scenes are marked by low shots of towering, cold buildings and punctuated by a brutal drumbeat. Fame is reining her in with its dark magic. She’s well on her way when the middle of the film is sharply cleaved, omitting about 15 years of Celeste’s life; the timeline sutures the past to the future, forming a symmetrical tapestry.
What’s even more astonishing than the quick rise to fame is the fact that Celeste’s stardom remains fixated in the heavens well into her adulthood. At 31, Portman’s Celeste is cold and abrasive, bratty but bold, ravaged by her own narcissism, while her reputation has endured a scandal of her own making; yet here she is hours away from playing to a crowd of 30,000. Portman’s performance is huge, and she really amplifies the Staten Island accent, which lends a crassness to the character that is off-putting and confounding. (In contrast, when she’s onstage, Portman is almost emotionless in her delivery; her metallic makeup disturbingly recalls the cold metal of a gun.) There’s a diner scene where Celeste attempts to bestow some meaning-of-life wisdom on her daughter Albertine (also played by Cassidy). At a nearly incoherent pace, she excoriates her own work but swears the masses will eat it up anyway. Throughout the film, somewhere in the background, a Greek chorus echoes “nothing matters.” In a true capitalist maneuver, Vox Lux absorbs our own nihilism, wraps it in a shiny package, and sells it back to us at a profitable markup.