LFF 2018: Vox Lux Review
Vox Lux is a film that tirelessly demands the audience to congratulate it for how smart it thinks it is. Opening with a 1999-set prologue depicting a high school massacre, and using the subsequent backdrops of 9/11 and ISIS attacks to correspond with the fame of its central character, writer/director Brady Corbet has made an insufferably obvious allegory for the decline of American society in the 21st century.
Just like his previous film, The Childhood of a Leader, his clear technical skill as a director is undermined by his inability to subtly convey his themes, or even make his characters sound like normal human beings in their most grounded moments. Instead, they just feel like constructs designed to articulate a state of the nation metaphor nowhere near as unique as Corbet clearly believes it to be.
Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is a 13-year-old girl wounded in a high school shooting that proves fatal to her classmates. Alongside her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), she composes a song articulating her emotions after the tragedy - and it becomes an anthem for a country wounded by the attacks - setting her on the path to superstardom. The sisters capture the attention of a manager (Jude Law), and are swiftly sent to Sweden to record with a leading pop producer, laying down an album that turns Celeste into an icon.
Sixteen years later, Celeste (Natalie Portman) is recovering from various scandals and has developed a deep distrust of the media. She’s still a beloved pop icon, but in the midst of an ongoing, very public breakdown, with controversy continuing to surround her when the news reports masks from one of her earlier, iconic music videos were worn by terrorists committing an attack in Croatia.
It’s very easy to talk about the intended themes in Vox Lux, because Corbet doesn’t have the skill as a writer to make them subtext - he even hires Willem Dafoe in an unnecessary narrator position to spell out his very obvious metaphor in the most overbearing fashion imaginable. Celeste isn’t particularly corrupted by fame when we see her in the early stages, with even the unnamed manager character played by Law being a caring, paternal influence throughout her career. Instead, her fall from innocence is set up as a parallel to the supposed decline of western values (a problematic concept in itself), which is even articulated as a possible reason terrorists chose to wear masks from her music video.
The problem is that the significant time jump, and the drastic changes in the character’s personality between the two periods, make this supposed metaphor somewhat incoherent in its presentation. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to stop the director forcing it down our throats until we have no choice but to swallow it regardless, leaving us with a grandiose proclamation about the state of the USA in the 21st century that never once rings true, and an attempted character study where the lead character exists solely as a metaphor.
Corbet’s other problem is that he doesn’t fully understand pop music. Sia serves as a producer on the film, and the songwriter behind the songs on the soundtrack - and yet, the songs (with the one exception of the high school shooting ballad, “I Crumble”) sound inauthentic, sounding more akin to the EDM pop of this decade than the bubblegum bangers of the early 2000s. Celeste’s debut music video also bears no resemblance to a realistic pop promo, combining more strobe lights than Gaspar Noé’s entire filmography and sinister masked men to create a fairly disorienting experience.
Corbet’s visual sensibility is difficult to argue against elsewhere, but in these crucial moments that we are told are pivotal to the making of an icon, his reluctance to leave his arthouse comfort zone and create something realistic to the material is infuriating. I was left contrasting this lack of authenticity with the work of Olivier Assayas. As a director, Assayas manages to integrate sequences from imaginary film productions into his films, from a YA drama in Clouds of Sils Maria to a German horror serial in Personal Shopper, and they feel authentic due to how much research he’s carried out just to replicate the look onscreen. Corbet is far more preoccupied with making these elements look attuned to his sensibilities, rather than the other way round, which makes his own take on the famous “Star is Born” tale feel false.
Trapped within Corbet’s overpowering thesis are two performances much deserving of a better film. Natalie Portman’s turn as a jaded icon, pushing away all those close to her as the pressure of the spotlight proves too much, is as excellent as you’d expect, thematically linked with her roles in Black Swan and Jackie in this regard, albeit in a film nowhere close to the excellence of those two. However, it’s Raffey Cassidy’s dual performance as young Celeste and, in the later stages, Celeste’s teen daughter that proves the most effective - there’s a quiet, haunting vulnerability to these two roles, and she manages to make the two characters feel unique despite their shared emotional characteristics. She’s already impressed in small roles like The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but Vox Lux shows that she can carry a film exceptionally well. She’s the closest thing to a worthwhile reason to subject yourself to this mess.