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Vox Lux opens with a scene that’s initially warm but ends with a shocking, sickening moment of violence. And out of that violence, a star is born. Writer-director Brady Corbet’s second feature tackles the issue of celebrity in both criminal and pop-music form, ruminating on its capriciousness as well as what would happen to media darlings if people just stopped paying attention. The pop star is desperate not to find out.
Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is 14 at the turn of the century and the survivor of a school shooting in which she suffers a spinal injury. At a memorial service, she sings a song that she and her sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), wrote in response to the tragedy. After a tweak of the lyrics—“I” is changed to “we”—the song becomes a nationwide anthem and Celeste becomes a sensation. She gets a manager (a disheveled, variously accented Jude Law) and rises to stardom, with Eleanor always close by her side.
Then Eleanor sleeps with the manager (he’s never given a name), Celeste sleeps with a guy in a metal band, and Sept. 11 thrusts the country into another period of mourning. The film’s narrator (Willem Dafoe) connects these events, suggesting that on that day, Celeste lost her innocence along with the nation. Eleanor is still entwined in Celeste’s life, but the sisters’ relationship becomes bumpy.
Vox Lux then jumps to 2017. Celeste is 31 and has a teenager, Albertine (also Raffey Cassidy in an elliptical casting stunt). Now played by Natalie Portman, Celeste is swaggering and suddenly strongly Staten Island-accented; prior to this, Cassidy and Martin, the weakest of the cast, only sporadically talk like New Yorkers, and even when they do, their accents are barely noticeable. Portman’s performance is brash, however, and will either win you immediately or strike you as the actorly equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. It’s impossible to feel ambivalent about it, and by that metric it’s successful. It’s definitely un-Natalie Portman-esque.
Another tragedy awaits in Corbet’s script, keeping Vox Lux strenuously serious and bleak, a tone the discordant score reinforces despite Celeste’s bouncy pop hits (the songs, not quite as catchy as those in the similarly themed A Star Is Born, were written by Sia). Gun culture is the obvious subject, but because the second incident doesn’t take place in the U.S., it’s hard to pin down the director’s message. Even the characters don’t know what to make of this occurrence; the perpetrators design what’s initially only a superficial tie to Celeste, but no details emerge before the film’s end that offer the why behind the what. She’s hounded about it in a press conference and an interview, but the pressure only serves to lead her to get fucked up before her big comeback concert.
The narrator describes Celeste as a “prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present which had reached an extreme of its cycle”—to our eyes, that means that she doesn’t get along with Eleanor and has a prickly relationship with Albertine, who grew up with Eleanor as her guardian. Her career has also suffered (at least it’s inferred that it suffered) from a PR nightmare involving heavy drinking. But why Celeste’s present is so “gaudy and unlivable” beyond that is anyone’s guess, especially when the film caps off her story with a triumph. Fourteen-year-old Celeste says that she chose pop music because “I didn’t want people to have to think too hard. I just want them to feel good.” Vox Lux is too dour to make anyone feel good. How hard you think is up to you.
Vox Lux opens December 14 at Landmark Atlantic Plumbing Cinema.