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A dark star is born in this intriguing if weirdly anticlimactic and undeveloped new film from Brady Corbet. It has a stunning and genuinely disturbing premise, but no equally strong third-act ideas. There certainly isn’t anything like the killer punch of his feature debut, The Childhood of a Leader (2016), and, as the pop star at the centre of the movie, Natalie Portman goes into a pretty broad In Bed With Madonna routine that doesn’t deliver anything overwhelmingly insightful.
As an actor, Corbet has worked with Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke and Olivier Assayas. As a director, he found a great deal of their icy elegance and formal provocation in Childhood, working with partner and co-writer Mona Fastvold: an extraordinarily audacious and mysterious study of fascism in its cradle. Vox Lux is a film with obvious resemblances to that previous film: there is the same sense of an eerily implacable destiny, another amazing orchestral score by the late Scott Walker, and the same casting mannerism of using the same actor twice. But to what end?
Raffey Cassidy is Celeste, a teenage girl from the town of New Brighton on Staten Island, New York, who one day in school is caught up in a horrendous act of violence. It almost kills her and the unfolding of these events delivers a shocking blow right at the start of the film. As a way of working through her trauma, the musically talented Celeste performs a moving and simple song at a commemorative service with her elder sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), and this instantly becomes a national sensation.
A tough-talking, cynical but very competent manager, well played by Jude Law, guides Celeste into a blockbusting pop career (there appears to be no question of continuing her studies), and her music evolves away from its early straightforwardness to something darker, more challenging and more ambiguous. She appears in some Nietzschean way to have absorbed and controlled the violence that did not kill her.
Later, when Celeste has grown into a careworn thirtysomething veteran of megastardom, raucous and entitled, and blearily defiant in the face of press denigration, she is played by Portman in an exuberant if rather two-dimensional way. Martin and Law are not replaced, and Cassidy is back playing Celeste’s moody and neglected daughter Albertine, a doppelganger resurgence that doesn’t earn the impact it appears to claim. We see Celeste prepare for a massive comeback concert on her home turf in New York, and having to ignore press reports of a new act of violence for which she may be held responsible.
The first act of Vox Lux is queasily inspired: disquieting, exciting, chillingly amoral. It impales you on its ambiguity. Celeste’s almost supernatural ascent to stardom is either a wonderful redemptive process or a delayed symptom of the evil implanted by the original violence, a flowering of darkness in Celeste’s mind, an anti-miracle of daemonic creativity.
Cassidy’s coolly self-possessed performance embodies this essential enigma, instinctively holding her own in the face of Law’s crass and bullying advice. Everything about Celeste is mesmerically calm, as if she is starring in a pop music version of Damien Omen II. Celeste appears to be surrounded by omens and portents, particularly the claustrophobic tunnels she’s always travelling down and that feature in her dreams.
But then there is the issue of Celeste’s less interesting adult persona, played by Portman, and the giant concert that is effectively the film’s closing scene. How much to acknowledge the real world of pop music is always difficult (a trip to Stockholm involves an unavoidable glimpse of Abba) and of course, showing “fictional” pop music in a film is a challenge, like showing “fictional” paintings by an imaginary artist. How good are we supposed to think Celeste is? How plausible is her music? (Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born surmounted this issue to some degree simply by being the real thing herself.) So how interesting and revelatory is that final big concert?
I’m not sure. So much of the voltage of the film had initially rested on wondering where this could all be going, a sense that something was very wrong in founding a pop career on the obscenity of violence. Where it’s going turns out to be … not too dissimilar from the end point of many other pop careers, and the issue of that other act of terrorism that she may have inspired is left unexamined. But what a commanding performance from Cassidy. And Walker’s score offers a sinister caress.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Vox Lux review – a pop star rises from the flames of violence | Drama films