Imagine a Wes Anderson movie soaked in pop-star excess and with a heavy dose of gun violence and you get Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, a movie that feels simultaneously precious and pretentious. Let us commend this movie for giving Natalie Portman the opportunity to take the foul-mouthed Saturday Night Live version of herself and debauch it even further with a character who uses a national tragedy to propel into superstardom. But Portman make some strange choices with the underwritten character, and watching her dance around in a glittery black jumpsuit with a dyed-silver pompadour (granted, a scene that has some visceral delight!) is nearly all Vox Lux has going for it.
Vox Lux is divided into various acts and proceeds chronologically, from a “Prelude” to a “Finale,” and narrator Willem Dafoe guides us through the life of Celeste (played by the very good Raffey Cassidy as a teenager, and then by Portman as an adult). With her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) by her side, Celeste performs in home videos for her family, writes songs, and creates music—and turns to that creativity after a community tragedy.
When the girls write a song to describe their experience (in the film chapter “Genesis,” of course), their performance (with lyrics like “I will say nothing, and listen to your love/I’m so lucky to be with you, keeping you from my shadow”) grabs national attention. “It was not her grief, it was theirs,” Dafoe notes, and soon the sisters are shopping around for a record label, guided by a world-weary, slightly creepy agent (Jude Law, continuing his omnipresence this year), and traveling to Stockholm to record music.
It’s in that city that Eleanor starts sharing with her younger teen sister experiences that their parents shielded them from at home—drinking, drugs, one-night stands—and then Sept. 11, 2001 happens, and Celeste shoots a music video for the song “Hologram” that shows her riding as a passenger on a motorcycle in a tunnel with no opening, a recreation of a dream she continuously has in which she wakes up before her journey is over. “I wish to disappear now, I’ve seen enough,” the song goes, and Celeste’s sorrow seems to have no end. (Just like the tunnel! Symbolism!)
Fast-forward to 2017 (chapter title: “Regenesis”), when Celeste is now a 31-year-old pop star, burnt-out and hollow and brusque, protected by a variety of handlers and embittered about her role in the fame ecosystem. Everything she does is a performance, she insists, a way to generate headlines; the authenticity that inspired her first painful songs seems to be gone. She constantly wears a choker or adornment around her neck to hide a noticeable scar. She yells at paparazzi and tells off reporters (including Christopher Abbott in a welcome cameo). She’s operating at a constant level of inebriation, and when she wants more drugs, she entices Law’s agent character with “You can fuck me for a little while we’re high.”
Shit has clearly gotten even more dark! But with a sold-out concert for 30,000 in her hometown of Staten Island coming up, Celeste has to face some harsh truths: that perhaps her fame is fading, that her relationship with her sister may now be impossible to fix, that her teenage daughter Albertine (also played by Cassidy) is growing up and might be making the same mistakes that Celeste herself made.
How does a person grow from trauma in the spotlight, when that very fame is because of that very trauma? Those are questions Vox Lux raises, but for which it seems to have no answer—Corbet relies on intense violence to move chapters of Celeste’s life along, but also denies us a real glimpse into her own motivations, her own voice, her own actions. Dafoe narrates the journey for us. 16 years of character development is skipped so the story can go from “babe in the woods Celeste” to “angry, cursing-out-diner-managers, drunk on white wine Celeste.” And the revelations about Celeste’s character mostly come from other people: her sister reveals a secret, that journalist played by Abbott reveals a secret, Law’s agent reveals a secret.
What that means, then, is that Celeste is a character for whom performance is everything—potentially the only thing—and maybe that’s why the final 10 or so minutes of the film is just us watching Celeste (who is sort of like a Katy Perry/M.I.A./Sia mashup, and yes, Sia created some original songs for the movie) at that hometown concert. She dances around the stage, she kicks and gyrates and skips, she touches the scar on her neck, she engages with the audience (“People have been trying to keep me down for years, but I won’t stay down”), and she alludes to her past with lyrics like “Without your love, I’d be up above/Instead of here with you” and “I’m a private girl in a public world.”
Portman goes for it, and her physicality onstage is certainly a change of pace from the actress we know otherwise; this version of Celeste seems like the kind of woman who would say something like “Here all the all-male nominees” while presenting Best Director at the Golden Globes. Um, a reminder of that great moment:
But Portman’s performance is incongruous with the character as we know her before; the contrast between her brazenness and the fragility of teenage Celeste is too great. Is that the point Corbet is making with Vox Lux, that violence changes us immeasurably? That victimhood is a soul-shattering event? That to understand such pain, you have to recreate yourself as someone totally different? That to grow is to self-destruct? I guess so; those are all questions I considered while watching Vox Lux. But there is so much of this narrative missing, and Corbet’s reliance on shocking moments is too obvious, and Portman’s stranger choices—giving Celeste a heavily affected, extremely distracting New York accent, for one—so unnecessary that Vox Lux never comes together into the movie it’s desperately trying to be.
Image sources (in order of posting): Epk.tv/NEON, Epk.tv/NEON, Epk/tv/NEON