Director: Brady Corbet
Starring: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Jude Law
Words – Toni Stanger
Tonally, Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux feels like an amalgamation of three different films, especially as it is split into a prologue with two main acts. The opening, set in 1999, is very profound as it explores normality turning into devastation through a Columbine-like school shooting – something that has become an unfortunate common occurrence in America. It’s a powerful statement to make; one that grabs you by the throat and then shatters you completely. This is how fast life can end and the film has no trouble reminding us of that.
Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives the violent tragedy but is left with a lifelong spinal injury. With the help of her more talented older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), she writes a cathartic song (titled ‘Wrapped Up’) about the incident, which she performs at a memorial event. It’s one of the standout performances of the film and concludes what is a perfect introduction to Celeste’s kind and caring character before the story shifts and takes us on a new journey.
Celeste’s performance catches the attention of a successful music manager (portrayed perfectly by Jude Law) and the first half of the film follows her quick rise to stardom. She grows up in the spotlight of a horrific act of violence that has changed her whole life. She’s introduced to the wild lifestyle of sex, drugs and alcohol as she and Eleanor visit Europe and LA and spend unsupervised time together.
There is narration by Willem Dafoe who explains Celeste’s introduction to this world: “Before the massacre, Eleanor might have never dared to share these more disgraceful aspects of her recreational appetites with her young sibling, but considering all the suffering Celeste had endured, she was surely old enough now to engage in the more pleasurable parts of adulthood also.”
The second half of the film focuses on Celeste in 2017. Now 31-years-old and portrayed by Natalie Portman, she has a daughter of her own (Raffey Cassidy) and is still struggling with the effects of stardom. She has become quite an unlikable character by this point, making the shift from teenager to adult seem tonally inconsistent as we’ve missed out on some key development, it’s perhaps not the direction you think her character will go in, but it makes perfect sense for Celeste to have become a very jaded adult considering everything she’s been through.
Portman remains utterly fascinating in this role, especially carrying a strong Staten Island accent. It’s hard to turn away from how captivating Cassidy and Portman are in how they both portray Celeste throughout her life.
Vox Lux is a unique experience that will have audiences torn, but it’s an intriguing character study on what violence does to an individual. On their own, violence and stardom are big changes for someone to go through, but the combination of both is an even stronger commentary on current society.
Celeste is living Eleanor’s dream, but is a bullet and lifelong suffering a good price to pay for stardom? At one point, Celeste tells her daughter that “It’s like I’m connected to the whole world all the time and I can hear everyone in my head.”
Considering the film’s timeline which starts in 1999, we also see Celeste and Eleanor’s initial reactions to 9/11. It’s another tragedy that further reflects how horrifying life can be and it’s certainly not the last one that the film includes. Dafoe refers to Celeste’s “loss of innocence” during his narration, which is entirely what we see happen to her character throughout the film. We see a kind and innocent girl become a product of the violence that she has witnessed and experienced all around her – it’s like she absorbs it and becomes a monster.
Celeste is a complex character who contains endless multitudes and Vox Lux definitely gets this message across in its second half. Portman said that her character is reflective of our time: “that someone who can say awful things and do awful things can also be charismatic and alluring.”
The score is composed by Scott Walker (who sadly passed away in March 2019) with original songs written by Australian singer-songwriter Sia, the music is one of the film’s highlight and most songs sound true to Sia’s unmistakable style. Unfortunately, some songs are underwhelming, but the rest are enjoyable, catchy and a great expression of the film’s pop tone. Strangely enough, there’s no music over the film’s closing credits which is likely to balance out the fact that music features throughout and ends with Portman performing a 15-minute concert.
Portman said that the concert was physically demanding, but she did get to work again with her husband who choreographed the film (the pair met whilst working on Black Swan).
Overall, Vox Lux is a lot to take in. It’s a very ambitious film and Corbet certainly has his own distinct filmmaking style. It’s hard to know exactly how to feel by the time the credits roll: everything is so spectacular, yet the film itself isn’t necessarily a masterpiece. It’s a very peculiar experience and the tones of pop and violence are heavily interwoven. It’s definitely worth keeping a close eye on what Corbet does next.