Cast: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Christopher Abbott
Director: Brady Corbet
Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
There’s a potentially provocative idea at the heart of Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, visualized during the opening moments in which a school shooting massacre launches the career of a girl who survived the incident. There’s something perverse about the collision of pop culture and violence, and the way in which Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) pen a song in memory of their slain friends which becomes an anthem for a grieving nation. As Willem Dafoe’s omnipresent narrator explains, Celeste changes the “I” to “we,” in the song’s chorus; reconfiguring personal pain as universal. The tune turns into a chart-topping hit, thrusting Celeste into pop stardom guided by her scuzzy manager (Jude Law). However, the notion of pop culture’s relation to mental illness or national tragedies is never fully explored, and instead Vox Lux becomes a rather thin pop star in decline narrative; complete with a grown up Celeste (Natalie Portman) struggling with alcoholism and the trappings of fame.
Structured in three parts with foreboding titles like “Prelude 1999,” “Act I: Genesis 2000-2001,” and “Regenesis 2017,” Vox Lux takes a lot of time going nowhere while saying nothing particularly of interest. By framing Celeste’s introduction into celebrity culture around the wide-ranging tide of history (911 is mentioned fleetingly), and a present day terrorist attack where the assailants don masks similar to ones used in one of Celeste’s early music videos, Corbet ends up replicating the very things he’s denouncing. Vox Lux is about the emptiness of the pop culture machine and how people who become famous at an early age never mature emotionally beyond that point, which is exemplified by Portman’s grating performance as a star in meltdown mode. Taking on a generic New Jersey accent and flailing about with calculated gestures, Portman’s acting here is unintentionally hilarious. Meanwhile, the film’s commentary on the superficiality of celebrity is laughably self-serious (complete with Dafoe’s philosophical narration and Scott Walker’s thunderous score), without any satirical humor to offset the somber tone.
The film’s final act involves Celeste’s return to her home town of Stanton Island for a concert. There’s a forced reconciliation with her estranged sister Ellie (still played by Stacy Martin) and her daughter Albertine (played by Raffey Cassidy, aka the young Celeste). There’s an extended scene where mother and daughter go to a diner where she berates a fan, and a throwaway line of dialogue mentioning a car accident settlement and racist tirade, but for the most part, Corbet steers away from anything resembling psychological depth. His real aim seems to be to approximate the kind of disposable narrative arcs regarding celebrities which have become commonplace. To that end, the climax is an extended concert where Portman robotically dances, thrusts, and belts out generic pop bangers flanked by glittery, sci-fi inspired backup dancers. Corbet wants to thumb his nose at pop culture’s brutality and the “branding” of American life, but sadly, he lacks any real understanding of how pop music actually functions in society.
Vox Lux is the kind of anti-poptimist vehicle which is just as vapid as say, the angle of A Star is Born, where pursuing one’s artistic dreams is all that matters. As a distillation of how pain, tragedy, and self-destruction is good for pop branding, Vox Lux is banal, glib, and condescending; adopting the same signifiers it’s seeking to condemn. At one point, the young Celeste says, “I don’t want people to have to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.” By contrast, Corbet also doesn’t want people to have to think too hard. He just wants them to feel bad.