D: Brady Corbet / 114m
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Christopher Abbott, Logan Riley Bruner, Maria Dizzia, Willem Dafoe
In 1999, teenager Celeste Montgomery (Cassidy) is seriously wounded in a school shooting that leaves the rest of her classmates dead. Along with her sister, Ellie (Martin), she writes a song about the experience that is first played at a memorial service for the victims, and which draws the attention of an influential manager (Law). He takes the sisters under his wing, and gets them signed to a record company. Using their song as the launchpad for an album, their manager takes them to Stockholm, where they record new songs, while experiencing the kind of lifestyle that is both attractive and dangerous. In 2017, Celeste (Portman) is on the verge of releasing her sixth album – and making something of a comeback – when terrorists kill a number of tourists at a beach resort in Croatia, and wear masks that are similar to ones used in a music video Celeste made when her career was just starting. Faced with probing questions from the press about any possible links to the terrorists, Celeste also has to cope with the needs of her teenage daughter, Albertine (Cassidy), and her now fractured relationship with Ellie…
With The Childhood of a Leader (2015), actor turned director Brady Corbet established himself in one fell swoop as a movie maker to watch out for. With Vox Lux, Corbet has chosen to explore a familiar narrative – the perils of achieving stardom at a young age and how that same stardom can be both empowering and corruptive – but in an unfamiliar, avant-garde way that frequently stretches the narrative out of shape (and sometimes out of context as well), and presents viewers with two versions of the same character: the naïve, impressionable Celeste, and the jaundiced, disillusioned Celeste. Corbet allows the former version to be likeable and appealing and someone you can sympathise with, an ingenue whisked away from her parents and her small town life and exposed to the “real world” at a bewildering speed, and despite the best intentions of her manager, to the harsh truths of that world. But the latter version is the opposite, jaded and bored and prone to flying off the handle because she’s the one with the talent – Ellie has been all but forgotten in 2017 – and she’s the one carrying everyone else. She wants to connect with her daughter, but has never developed the skills to do so. All she knows is her career.
By showing Celeste at the beginning of her career, and then where she is now, Corbet makes some damning comments about the nature of fame and celebrity, but though the movie is visually fresh and exciting, his narrative isn’t, and Portman’s Celeste is prone to saying things like, “The business model relies on the consumer’s unshakable stupidity” as if this is a) profound, or b) something we didn’t know already. It’s the flaw in Corbet’s screenplay: none of what he’s showing or telling us is new; there are no great revelations here, merely reiterations of ideas that we’ve heard many times before. This makes the movie visually arresting – Corbet isn’t one to shy away from experimenting with an excess of style – but less than intriguing, and though Portman and Cassidy are terrific as Celeste, the character doesn’t get under the viewer’s skin in a way that would allow an emotional response to what she’s going through. Corbet puts Celeste in the midst of tragedy time and again, but how all this actually affects her remains something of an unexplored mystery, and by the end, and an extended sequence that sees Portman strutting her stuff on stage to a buoyant electropop song medley, whatever message Corbet has been trying to get across is lost amongst all the bright lights and the glamour. Or maybe that is the message…
Rating: 6/10 – with narration from Willem Dafoe that feels like it should be attached to an adaptation of a classic novel, and inventive approaches to both its tone and content, Vox Lux is a mixed bag that has the ability to frustrate and reward at the same time; not as compelling a tale of burdensome fame and fortune as it wants to be, but fascinating nevertheless for Corbet’s confidence behind the camera, this is one movie whose merits are likely to be debated for some time to come.