Vox Lux Review
Brady Corbet's follow-up to The Childhood of a Leader feels totally at odds with the straight-faced worthiness of his debut; it's a spangled, massively disconcerting odyssey that seems tailor-made to annoy as many people as possible - and is all the better for it. Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman star as the tormented Celeste, a singing prodigy catapulted into the spotlight after a Columbine-style shooting at her high school in 1999. Our narrator is Willem Dafoe, whose po-faced chronicle of Celeste's story does nothing to help allusions to the films of Lars Von Trier (or, for this critic, his pretentious arthouse director from Mr Bean's Holiday)
Comparisons with the notorious Danish auteur are not thrown around lightly. Most attempting to capture exactly what Vox Lux is in miniature have gone for the easy target: Portman’s career-defining Black Swan. But unlike Aronofsky’s awards’ darling, her new showcase has a distinguished lack of sympathy. This is a black-hearted provocation whose main thesis suggests that fame is as soul-destroying as it looks, and asks: do we laugh, weep, or merely shift uneasily in our seats?
The film takes a bi-fold narrative, detailing Celeste’s first months of super-stardom before flashing forward - after a tumultuous convergence of national tragedy and disruption much closer to home – to the first night of her Vox Lux tour. Present in both is Jude Law as an irrepressibly grumpy manager. The two sections are presented with title cards as one would find on an old, leather-bound tome, positioning the film as “A Twenty-first Century Portrait”. As such, both parts see Corbet dealing with many shades of millennial angst, panic and heartbreak.
These fan the flames of Portman’s performance, one that sees her relish every zinger with enviable zeal. This is a whirlwind stab of a character, like a set of kitchen knives in a blender: unpredictably fierce, sharp but ungainly thrown. Much like her turn in Jackie, finding yourself on the right side of it will reward in spades. Cassidy does very well in her foundational role, and as Celeste’s teenage daughter, Albertine, during the second act (the dual casting does little to dispel the image of Corbet not so much having his cake and eating it as spitting the half-eaten crumbs back in your face).
Cinematographer Lol Crawley shoots the whole sorry tale on 35mm, frame after frame infused with grain so tangible you could sink your teeth into it as readily as Portman wraps her tongue around the film’s power-pop anthems. Written by Sia and complimented perfectly by a haunting score from the late Scott Walker, the collection of tracks are devilishly authentic to both Celeste and the bleakness of her journey. What our anti-heroine encounters during her final pre-show conference sees Corbet and co-writer Mona Fastvold double-down on the bloodshed.
And when all avenues of button-pushing have been exhausted (Clockwork Orange-style degeneracy, inflammatory press interviews and the chilliest mother-daughter heart-to-heart since Lady Bird dropped from a moving car), we’re treated to a final performance of such twisted narrative significance and visual splendour that you wonder why Bohemian Rhapsody even bothered to try. As the lights come up, you’re as likely to find yourself sighing in exasperation as you are to – as I did – share a knowing grin with a fellow patron.