There was a time when you could barely see a movie without catching a glimpse of Brady Corbet. The actor seemed to be in every arthouse favorite of 2014, with supporting roles in everything from “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Eden” to “Force Majeure” and “While We’re Young,” but he hasn’t so much as made a cameo in the four years since. The reason why: He chose to step behind the camera rather than in front of it, making one of the most impressive debut features in recent memory with 2015’s “The Childhood of a Leader.” Corbet won two prizes at Venice for his haunting look at a future totalitarian’s early years, and returns to the Lido in highly ambitious form with “Vox Lux.”
He didn’t come alone. Natalie Portman stars as the mononymous Celeste, a pop star whose musical stylings were composed by Sia, with a supporting cast led by Jude Law and Stacy Martin. Her name is no coincidence: As explained by the narrator (whose identity remains best left unspoiled), Celeste comes from the Latin word for “heavenly” and, in her case, signifies that her fate may have been written in the stars. This young woman was born for great things, which, it turns out, may only be tangentially related to music.
To call “Vox Lux” a pop-star drama would falsely suggest that it in any way resembles “A Star Is Born” or is at all interested with the music industry, especially when you learn, in its opening minutes, what compels our heroine to start singing in the first place. The film begins in 1999, at which time a 13-year-old Celeste is in music class when a classmate opens fire in her classroom, killing several and leaving her with a spinal injury that will cause her pain for the rest of her days. It’s a horrific sequence, coming out of nowhere and filmed in such a way that puts you closer to the violence than you’d ever want to be; this is Celeste’s life, and for the next two hours it’s also ours. “Vox Lux” is a powerful, haunting film in part because Portman is a powerful, haunting presence — you can’t turn away from her, even if you occasionally want to.
School shootings have loomed large in America’s collective imagination for the last 20 years, and it’s likely no coincidence that this film’s massacre takes place in the same year as Columbine. Corbet, who turned 30 last month, is among the first filmmakers to make a movie exploring the aftermath of such a tragedy who was himself a young student when that era-defining shooting occurred; he’s also the first to convey how these incidents have crept their way into nearly aspect of young people’s lives. Celeste’s career is kickstarted by a mournful ballad she composes after her near-death experience, and “Vox Lux” is more concerned with her post-traumatic stress disorder than how many chart-topping singles she releases.
Raffey Cassidy (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) plays her in these early scenes, with Portman not appearing onscreen for nearly an hour. “That’s what I love about pop music,” she says, shortly before recording her breakthrough single. “I don’t want people to have to think too hard. I just want them to feel good.” Corbet doesn’t share that desire in the slightest, and one shudders to think what CinemaScore this film might receive — it couldn’t be less of a crowdpleaser, and is almost certainly the only movie about a pop star you’ll ever see whose own soundtrack inspires people to stick their fingers in their ears.
Scott Walker’s booming orchestral played an integral role in setting the ominous tone of “The Childhood of a Leader,” and so it’s unsurprising that Corbet would go overtly musical in his follow-up — even if it is surprising that he would collaborate with Sia. By turns discordant and catchy, their contrasting efforts are emblematic of “Vox Lux” as a whole: Celeste is a cross between goth and glam, and Portman holds nothing back in a histrionic performance that sees a damaged woman teetering on the brink of collapse. She shouts, curses, drinks wine from a plastic cup, and snorts who knows what off a table; occasionally she even finds time to perform, but not before being hounded by the press over her many misdeeds. Portman is fearless, going all out in a role that requires nothing less.
Her portion of the film begins with a mass shooting on a Croatian beach, the men responsible wearing masks first made famous by one of Celeste’s music videos. Though she doesn’t feel responsible for the bloodshed, the singer can’t help being reminded of the event that continues to inform, and perhaps even define, her very existence. “Vox Lux” doesn’t find any grand truths in its exploration of the nexus between pop superstardom and terrorism — how the one might inspire the other, how violence on a grand scale might be another way to get one’s name in lights — but that feels less like a failing and more like a reflection of its heroine’s fractured state of mind.
Celeste is described as a “prisoner of a gaudy and untenable present that had reached an extreme in its cycle” by that same narrator, who goes so far as to suggest that her talents may be the result of a deal with the devil she brokered during those moments between life and death. That’s heavy stuff, and Corbet makes you feel its full weight. His film isn’t fully realized, and the writer-director can’t possibly tie such far-flung ideas as Faustian bargains and pop ballads into a fully coherent whole — but “Vox Lux” is so grandly ambitious, so unabashedly its own experience, that it’s impossible to dismiss despite its flaws. You may not want to play it on repeat, but this is a song that demands to be heard at full volume.
“Vox Lux” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.