The narrative around how tragedy breeds great artistic expression is one that all forms of storytelling keep returning to, an ascent through the darkness and into the light, a darkness that can both scar and cleanse. In American filmmaking, we often view that story through emotionally-driven melodrama or stock-standard biopic - this past year we’ve seen that in the commendable remake of ‘A Star Is Born’ and the fetid rot of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. With ‘Vox Lux’ though, writer/director Brady Corbet takes the standard tropes of the narrative and pushes them to extremes. There’s nothing safe about ‘Vox Lux’ in intent or execution, which both accentuate its weaknesses and its strengths.
The film is the fictional pop star Celeste, who as a young girl in 1999 (Raffey Cassidy, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’) survives an horrific school shooting and, channeling her pain into songwriting, becomes a major pop star with the help of her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin, ‘Nymphomaniac’) and her manager (Jude Law, ‘Anna Karenina’). As an adult (Natalie Portman, ‘Jackie’), another act of tragedy spurs a reassessment of her choices, her closest relationships, what kind of artist she really is, and where she fits in the world around her.
It’s hard to really know where to begin with ‘Vox Lux’, the film a mix of choices both baffling and (for the most part) sublime. Corbet certainly revels in the melodrama inherent in the narrative, but pushes it as far as he can, almost to the level of operatics. Its thematic scope is enormous, using the microcosm of Celeste’s story to seemingly comment on the history and politics going on around her. There’s even a hint of Michael Haneke in its exploration of the relationship between violence and performance, how a demonstration of public violence (specifically referencing Columbine and recent acts of terrorism) as inherently performative, and the destructive effects of both. The problem is, the thematic strokes are so broad that it becomes difficult to settle into any of them. Thematically, ‘Vox Lux’ is one of the more fascinating renditions of this narrative, but its ambitions work equally for and against it, thrilling while you watch but never landing on a satisfying conclusion. Thankfully, the more direct narrative of Celeste’s rise to fame is handled with barely a hitch, so that the wider thematic concerns at least can rest on a sturdy foundation. Corbet is also both careful and ambitious in his tone, contrasting moments of intensity with absurdity, not only through the screenplay but in the execution of the film itself.
From the moment it begins, there’s an intoxicating dynamism to ‘Vox Lux’. It moves with certainty, unafraid to jolt you from one moment or tone to another. If Celeste is a star born of fire, the fire must be extreme and the journey through the woods as dark and disorienting as possible, and this shows in the gritty immediacy of Lol Crawley’s cinematography, the freneticism and invention in Mathew Hannam’s editing and the almost Hermann-esque opulence of Scott Walker’s score. There’s also an unsettling darkness to Keri Langerman’s baroque modernist costumes, where everything from jeans and t-shirts to sparked jumpsuits act as emotional armour for the characters, physical manifestations of their anger at the world and themselves. There’s something almost mythical about ‘Vox Lux’, Corbet embracing Celeste’s journey as modern American mythology, the dream of fame and the cost of self-expression. He neither worships his subject nor damns her, but simply observes as one does an animal in a zoo. It does occasionally feel like an imitation of Nicholas Winding Refn (with strong overtones of ‘The Neon Demon’), but the film’s biting sense of humour is enough to distinguish it.
You would imagine that with a film about a pop star, music would be an integral part of the storytelling, but it ends up becoming one of this film’s unexpected weaknesses. The songs are composed by Sia and performed by Cassidy and Portman, and for the most part are pretty stellar (as you would expect from Sia). However, their use within the film isn’t as strong, and here’s the one moment where I’ll indulge in a comparison with Bradley Cooper’s ‘A Star is Born’: where in that film the music formed an integral part of the narrative, often allowing us insight into the characters or becoming integral plot points, in ‘Vox Lux’, Corbet doesn’t seem to know what to do with the music. If they reveal some aspect of Celeste’s inner life, we’re never given the chance to see that, with none of the songs performed in full. Maybe this is intentional or Corbet doesn’t see them as necessary, but it leaves this aspect of the film unsatisfying. The same can be said of the concert finale, something the second half of the film builds thrillingly towards, only for it to be standard and bloated and confused. Perhaps it could have been stronger with more use of it or none at all, but this is one thing ‘Vox Lux’ probably shouldn’t have only gone halfway on.
Thematically, ‘Vox Lux’ is one of the more fascinating renditions of this narrative, but its ambitions works equally for and against it, thrilling while you watch but never landing on a satisfying conclusion.
As bombastic and surprising as Corbet’s filmmaking is, the real fireworks come from Natalie Portman, who finds a way to somehow surprise yet again as adult Celeste. She’s tempestuous, hilarious, erratic, dynamic, thrilling, shocking, explosive, damning and devastating, a performance erupting with electricity and utterly thrilling to watch. At this stage of her career, Portman has basically become spectacle personified, and ‘Vox Lux’ just cements this further. Raffey Cassidy continues to prove herself shockingly talented in the dual role of both young Cassidy and adult Cassidy’s daughter Albertine. There’s a grit to Cassidy’s work, a volatility and danger that comes as such a surprise from someone so young. There’s also great work from Jude Law, Stacy Martin and Jennifer Ehle as Celeste’s publicist Josie, and Willem Dafoe strikes a delicious tone as the film’s narrator, delivering some of Corbet’s finest writing with a wonderfully sarcastic wit.
The act of watching ‘Vox Lux’ is one that thrills and surprises in equal measure, and for the most part, the film feels like an artistic and thematic coup, willing to probe where others dare not and to provoke in strange and dangerous ways. It’s more the pity then that it never quite reaches the ambition Brady Corbet aims for, and its final moments feel more like a whimper than a bang. And yet, I still found myself celebrating that ambition and reeling from yet another stunning performance from Natalie Portman, so that even if ‘Vox Lux’ loses its shine the more you think about it, at least it's a film you won’t forget about anytime soon.