“That’s what I love about pop music,” says teenage rising pop star Celeste half way through Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux: “I don’t want people to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.” Watching Corbet’s second feature, a “twenty-first century portrait” (as the final card tells us) of a singer’s ascent to planetary stardom, I kept thinking about how far the film’s sensibility steers from the quote. A follow-up to Childhood of a Leader, Vox Lux corroborates Corbet’s flair for genesis stories, but also underscores the 31-year-old’s ability to defy expectations. Far from a feel-good and sanitized rags-to-riches parable, Vox Lux is a merciless autopsy of a bulimic society and its inability to process success and horror—a riveting trip that finds in a career-high performance by Natalie Portman its epicenter.
By the time Celeste shares her thoughts on pop music to an intoxicated English singer in a L.A. hotel, two years have passed since the act of unspeakable violence that opens Vox Lux: a mass shooting at Celeste’s Staten Island school that nearly sends her to the hereafter, and also, in an ironic twist, skyrockets her career. A bullet cut through her neck but miraculously left her alive. Asked to speak at the vigil, several cameras recording the ceremony, Celeste decides not to give a speech but sings a song composed with her older sister Ellie instead—a piece so moving and sung so beautifully to become, in Willem Dafoe’s rusty voiceover, “the anthem of a whole nation,” consigning Celeste to the firmament of America’s child prodigies.
Anchoring her ascent, the profoundly macabre roots of Celeste’s notoriety are nonetheless quickly pushed aside by the adults around her as the girl is catapulted at the heart of the music industry. “Sometimes I forget you’re a kid,” says her manager (Jude Law), and in Corbet’s elliptical script the puzzlement certainly does ring relatable, with the camera chronicling Celeste’s metamorphosis from naive pre-adolescent to rising starlet through fast-forwarded montages that interject the girl’s musical ascent with the obligatory young superstar’s cocktail of sex-booze-and-drugs excesses.
Punctuated by voiceovers packed with Wes Anderson-esque dry humor, and neatly divided into a prelude, two acts and a finale—a scaffolding reminiscent of three “tantrums” that structured Childhood—Vox Lux does not so much unfurl as a three-act plot but as a collection of windows in time temporally compressed and distant from one another. As Vox Lux enters Act 2 (“re-genesis,” in Corbet’s title card), Celeste is 31; a history of substance abuse precedes her, a teenage pregnancy has left her with now teenage daughter Albertine; and her second-guessing, insecure adolescent self has been replaced by a revoltingly self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing persona, constantly belittling her once beloved sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin). Sporting a black leather jacket, heavily made-up and perpetually spaced-out, 2017 Celeste is a far cry from the girl Corbet had introduced an hour prior—and her dark, near-emo vibe is an eerie echo of the deranged youngster who opened fire against her class.
While the buzz around Vox Lux will no doubt owe—whether to a small or large extent—to a wondrous, more over-the-top than ever Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy too delivers a terrific performance, first as tormented teenage Celeste, and eventually as Celeste’s own daughter Albertine in the film’s second half. Recycling actors is nothing Corbet hasn’t done already (Robert Pattinson himself played two roles in Corbet’s directorial debut); what’s surprising is watching 16-year-old Cassidy nail a heartfelt performance as PTSD struggling teenage Celeste, and eventually matching that level of pathos as Portman’s neglected, fragile daughter.
The prelude’s horrific shocker finds a powerful counterpoint in the massacre that opens Vox Lux’s second act. As Portman’s Celeste gears up for a concert to celebrate her 6th studio recording, “Vox Lux,” news breaks out that a group of terrorists opened fire against tourists at a beach resorts in Croatia, their faces covered with the same masks Celeste had used in one of her hits’ music videos. Pressed by journalists to comment on the tragedy, her calculated public outpouring of love and prayers soon gives in to a cringe-worthy narcissistic show. As Celeste ends up turning a tragedy into self-promotion (with Portman’s “I have more hits than a 30-round AK 47 magazine” going down as one of this year’s Venice Film Festival's most memorable lines), Corbet’s critique reaches its zenith. Vox Lux is not a commentary on school shootings or terrorist attacks. It does not seek to understand the reasons behind acts of unspeakable violence—instead, it offers a portrait of the ways they are digested—one seen through the eyes of an utterly deluded superstar whom society reveres, and who acts as its synecdoche.
In her pursuit of self-destructive pleasures, Portman’s Celeste captures the zeitgeist’s Pantagruelian scavenging for short-lived thrills and aversion to memory (“the past reeks too much of ugly people and death,” she tells her daughter), while her non-existent empathy, all the more striking when she’s presented with a tragedy that should ring achingly close to her (“so what, there’s been a shooting?” she snaps at Law before a press conference) feeds into the preoccupations of Hannah Arendt and Martha Nussbaum over the importance to foster political emotions as antibodies against a collective numbness to evil.
Shot in 35mm by Lol Crawley, whom Corbet had already worked with on his directorial debut, there are moments when Vox Lux mirrors Childhood’s oil-painting looks—only this time Crawley juxtaposes the first half’s rusty blues, grays and browns palette with brighter hues to adjust to Celeste’s bombastic rise. Yet Vox Lux’s finale feels somewhat anticlimactic. For all its catchy tunes (courtesy of Sia, who composed Vox Lux’s original songs and also served as executive producer next to Portman and Law), onesies-wearing dancers and promises of grand choreographies, Celeste’s concert feels surprisingly dragged, with Corbet’s directing—so powerful elsewhere—unable to spice up the visuals. But it is a minor blip in an audacious and defiant second feature, gorgeously shot and directed—with a prelude packed with mind-blowing cinematic force. Not since Gus Van Sant’s Elephant have scenes of wanton violence felt so disturbingly vivid. “I’m a private girl in a public world,” sings Portman as Vox Lux comes to a close. But in Corbet’s ruthless portrait of the society she serves as emblem, those distinctions may no longer be meaningful.