Natalie Portman has done it all. She’s played Jackie Kennedy, she’s won an Oscar, and she continually picks projects that are more interesting than the last. Brady Corbet’s dark pop satire Vox Lux sees her once again, taking on a complicated, demanding role. She’s a singer who has descended into complete psychological madness. And most of it, if not all of it works. However, Portman, only appearing in half of the movie, brings it to something close to brilliance and makes it entirely her own.
Celeste (Raffey Cassidy, Portman later) is an eighth-grade student who survives a school shooting in 1999 Staten Island. After a grueling, extended recovery process, she and her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) write a song about the event. At a candlelit vigil, at a podium in a back brace, and in front of a walker, Celeste sings this song, and it becomes a moment that captivates the nation. It catapults the two sisters into stardom. Before the completion of their album, the sisters are estranged and Celeste goes off on her own. Cut to present day, Celeste is a total hot mess, and she’s barely hanging on by a thread. She has a teenage daughter (also played by Raffey Cassidy) who she barely sees, and she’s an alcoholic. Before a big concert in her hometown, another horrifying act of violence demands her attention, and it isn’t clear if she’ll make it through the show.
This is like a bleak, nasty, perplexing version of A Star is Born. In the same way that film was swoony and heartfelt and genuine, this is mean, cynical and ice-cold. It’s a startling indictment of how American culture galvanizes and exploits tragedy for its own personal interest and how we, as the consumers of this kind of entertainment are so broken, we don’t even question what we’re being sold, and maybe we don’t even notice or care. The way the fame machine chews up Celeste and spits her out is reminiscent of so many others brought to quick stardom in America, and it’s heartbreaking to watch her decline, but we’re frequently reminded that she may never have been a very good person, or a very talented person, to begin with.
Narrated by Willem Dafoe, the film makes the mistake of telling, rather than showing. A few significant events occur during the time-jump, and they’re quickly explained by a deadpan-voiced Dafoe. In the beginning, he describes Celeste’s rise to fame with an unsympathetic, sardonic shrewdness that sets the uncompromising tone that is maintained throughout. We move through the events of Celeste’s life so quickly, it would have been nice to have seen some narrated moments play out onscreen.
Written and directed by Brady Corbet, it’s skillfully and artfully made, but at the same time, it’s kind of full of itself. It can feel pretentious and hollow in a way that detracts from the stellar work elsewhere onscreen. For instance, I immediately rolled my eyes when the words “Act One: Genesis” appeared over a black screen, and then again when the end credits rolled backward. I know an unnerving, off-kilter tone is what he’s going for, and it does work, but it would be even better if his narrative tricks were less obvious.
Natalie Portman is giving a big, masterful performance, and she’s an actress who has consistently chosen interesting projects. She’s doing an over-the-top, loudmouth, trashy, New Yorker-type accent, and she’s spectacular. Her performance is illustrating the emotionally stunted state of Celeste, and how she never really evolved from the mindset and attitude of a teenager. She’s enthralling to watch. Raffey Cassidy is very good in a dual role, and Jude Law turns in a reliably solid performance as the manager who follows Celeste throughout her career.
While parts of Vox Lux are baffling, I also couldn’t stop thinking about it for days. It’s macabre, mean and utterly fascinating. It says a lot about this country’s fascination with pop stars, and how gross that can really feel under the surface. It doesn’t treat its subject matter with any kind of sympathy or compassion. It’s a bit of a downer, but the points it raises are stark and thought-provoking. It’s a challenging, dark, mesmerizing film that comes firmly recommended.