Brady Corbet / UK / 2018 / 114 mins
Part of the Glasgow Film Festival
Presented as a three-act documentary narrated by Willem Dafoe, Vox Lux opens with a brutal opening scene that is rightfully shocking, depicting the horror of a high school shooting in America. One of the survivors, Celeste, later performs a song she’s written with her sister at a memorial for her classmates, and from here is catapulted into fame. The film then charts her rise, culminating in an extended look at adult Celeste, played by Natalie Portman, preparing for a comeback performance in her hometown.
Written down, the synopsis might suggest a glittery, Star is Born-esque musical, but Corbet’s indie art film is anything but uplifting. Instead, Vox Lux is a dimly-lit, sombre piece that maintains an uncomfortable, funereal feel throughout. Celeste’s music is also presented cynically as vapid pop-dance fluff, bereft of depth.
One major off-note is that the protagonist’s transformation into a popstar is never very believable, particularly since young Celeste’s hits are poorly sung and forgettable. There’s also no sense of context in this section of the film. It’s so narrowly focused on the teenager’s time in hotels and recording studios that there’s no impression of the public’s perception of her. However, we get the feeling that the realism of the superstar rise isn’t really the point. If anything, the dubiety of it might deliberately contrast with the film’s opening scene, encouraging us to consider the meaninglessness of pop culture, despite its pretences. The script is also questionable at points – Jude Law‘s manager character is fairly clichéd and Celeste’s scenes with her older sister feature some odd dialogue.
Natalie Portman doesn’t appear until Act II of the film and by this point, much of the momentum has faded – a lost opportunity since Portman is such a clearly superior actress to her younger counterpart, Raffey Cassidy (who later plays Celeste’s teenage daughter, making things even more bizarre.) However, it is Portman who saves the film. Adult Celeste makes for a far more fascinating character study. She is a completely dissociated mother, an alcoholic, and an emotionally unstable wreck trapped by fame. A dressing room breakdown scene towards the climax is a standout moment in the film that fixates and startles us.
Vox Lux‘s focus flits so sporadically, though, that the result is an incohesive whole. Portman does bring magnetism and is the film’s saving grace, but the exploration of gun violence feels like a lost opportunity and instead we move more towards the cult of celebrity – interesting in its own right and examined with intensity here, but not what the film’s harrowing opening promised us.