Vox Lux has at times been referred to as the more superior 2018 film about a star being born- take that as you will. However, this assessment isn’t fair because it is so much more than that. Actor-turned-director Brady Corbet’s second feature takes the “rising of a pop star/musician” trope and turns it on its head, giving the viewer a truly unique experience that they won’t see coming.
The film, told in three acts and narrated by an unseen Willem Dafoe, begins in 1999 with a deeply unsettling school shooting scene. 13-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives, only suffering from a neck wound, and is quickly hospitalized. While recovering, she and her sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), write a heartfelt song that they later perform at the fallen students and faculty members’ eulogy. The song spreads across the nation- the late 90s version of going viral- and Celeste is suddenly propelled into a pop career. Her parents entrust her with the nameless Manager (Jude Law), who oversees Celeste and Eleanor throughout a busy recording and touring schedule. The once innocent Celeste is quickly forced to come of age, experiencing her first sexual encounter (an older, drug-induced musician), her first betrayal (catching Eleanor and the Manager in bed together), and another tragedy (the incidents of 9/11).
Fast forward to 2017 and Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) has earned international fame and recognition; so much so that she is tied to a shooting on a Croatian beach where the perpetrators are donning masks replicating the ones worn in her first music video. This incident happens on the day Celeste is returning to the stage after two years to celebrate the release of her new album, ‘Vox Lux’. The once innocent and shy little girl has grown into an unruly and narcissistic diva which has caused an emotional barrier between not only Eleanor, but also her own daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy). The stress of handling the tragic situation, along with the tolls from her failed love and family life, take a massive toll on the pop singer, resulting in a breakdown just before her show.
Act I and Act II serve as interesting contrasts to each other. Despite a plethora of events being covered in the first half of the film, the direction, Lol Crawley’s cinematography, and the acting are played in a minimalist style – sometime Cassidy’s lines even seem like they are being read from cue cards. This is contrasted with the second half’s maximalism wherein, although taking place all in one day, the style of the film changes a bit. The performances become more melodramatic – yet not quite to the point of overacting.
All this leads to Act III’s impressive 20-minute concert scene. With the absence of virtually all dialogue, save for a short final narration from Dafoe, the audience is treated to Celeste’s performance. Though featured throughout the film, the sweeping cinematography, costume design, and original songs written by pop musician Sia are put in full force. Everything that had happened to Celeste that day has melted away as she immerses herself 100% into her work.
The concert scene, choreographed expertly by Portman’s husband Benjamin Millepied, is truly a spectacle to behold. It showcases just how much the actress is willing to put into her role, yet it is not the highlight of her performance. The entirety of Act II, centered around adult Celeste, is dominated by Portman’s presence. Her turn as the feisty yet troubled pop sensation is immersive to the point the viewer might mistake the film for a documentary. From the slightly manufactured Brooklyn accent to the cocky popstar strut, she exhibits a role that could be classified as a career best alongside her performances in Black Swan and Jackie. Equally standing out is Raffey Cassidy, successfully playing two very different roles with ease. We will likely be seeing more and more of her throughout the coming years.
What is fascinating about Corbet’s study of celebrity status and pop culture is that it is not a sugarcoated, redemptive story. We as viewers do not necessarily take a liking to Celeste (at least the older Celeste), yet we sympathize because we are all well aware the effects that fame can have on a human being, especially when it is brought on at such a young age. Yet, cultural success is not the only thing plaguing Celeste throughout her life. Tragedy and violence follow her from the very beginning, never ceasing, but bringing less and less of a shock to her every time. This could be the director’s statement against the affects these events have on the country as a whole. Instead of doing something about them, are we merely just getting used to them?
Ultimately, Vox Lux is most likely not a film for everyone. Corbet doesn’t seem interested in satisfying his audience, but rather testing them, offering them three very different feelings to each respective act. It comes off more as an experience than a film – a task, even – to work through, and that’s the point. Once we’ve reached the concert performance scene, we are offered a chance to relax and reflect on what we’ve seen. Perhaps that was Corbet’s point. Maybe the final concert scene isn’t about spectacle, but rather a chance to recover from what we’ve been through. At least, that’s what it is for Celeste.