What is the price of success? This age-old question is one of the themes in this grandiose and portentous pop star fable starring Natalie Portman and Jude Law.
Written and directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Brady Corbet, whose debut The Childhood of a Leader was a sinister period nightmare awarded best director and best first feature at Venice in 2015, Vox Lux bears some resemblance to Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born — although twice as ambitious.
Cooper, after all, was not trying to talk about modern-day terrorism and the death throes of Western consumerism — just the loneliness of life at the top.
Corbet’s film is altogether more far-reaching.
While Childhood of a Leader was about characters bearing witness to some of the most disastrous moments of the early 20th century, Vox Lux is the same idea applied to our own era.
It begins with a “Prologue” title card, accompanied by ominous strings and Willem Dafoe’s voice-over introducing the protagonist, who we see in pastel home-video footage as a girl performing in a lounge room with a Christmas tree.
This is Celeste, and you’re made to understand trouble awaits her.
Corbet propels us next into a high school massacre — with jarring edits and unflinching violence — after which 14-year-old Celeste ends up with a bullet in her spine.
It’s the kind of shocking opening — misanthropic and coolly distant — that reminds you of a 21st-century Lars Von Trier (Dafoe’s narration underscores the impression).
Two more title cards, sectioning the film with biblical self-importance, “Genesis” and “Regenesis”, further cement this comparison.
The doe-eyed, pale-skinned Raffey Cassidy (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) plays Celeste in the first act, set in the late 1990s. She’s a suburban girl with a beautiful voice who’s catapulted to fame after a song she writes about the shooting with her sister (Stacy Martin) becomes a national hit, channelling the nation’s grief.
Jude Law plays her manager, the best character in the film, transforming from a strictly-business chaperone in the first half to an altogether more blurry manager/confidante in the second.
As an adult Celeste is played by Portman, an otherworldly beauty whose glamour is offset by a bratty, almost Jersey Shore vulgarity. In this section Cassidy plays her disaffected teen daughter.
Told with the right psychological nuance, this has the makings of quite a film.
But it’s clear Corbet has more on his mind than Celeste’s personal woes alone, and he pivots the story on the 9/11 attacks, whose aftershocks ricochet through his protagonist’s life in obviously symbolic ways.
Celeste goes from a fresh-faced teenager who’s a lightning rod for national pain, to a woman with a resentful streak, widely regarded with suspicion by the once-adoring public.
It’s a strange meld of macro and micro storytelling, in which Corbet is interrogating the act of myth-making — and how the news cycle turns on its heroes — while also asking questions about how America changed in the wake of 9/11.
He throws a tabloid scandal and another terrorist attack into the mix. Suddenly, Celeste has a PR crisis on her hands.
“I used to be treated like I was a hero,” complains Portman, with a similar anguish to her psychologically imploding ballet dancer in Black Swan.
On the eve of her character’s comeback tour for her new album, events conspire to derail her.
If you’re not quite sure what the film is saying, rest assured there are song lyrics to tell you. “I’m a private girl in a public world,” Celeste sings during the movie’s dreadfully shot concert finale (apparently real-life pop star Sia wrote material for the soundtrack, so not sure how this clanger made it through).
It’s a pity Corbet couldn’t dramatise this story of trauma and fame’s double-edged sword with more subtlety.
Portman, who gets an executive producer credit along with Law, is not the most multifaceted performer, and her part has been written in a way that’s mostly reactive, with not a lot to signal what’s going on beneath the surface. Corbet pushes some of Celeste’s most interesting dramas off screen, to be recounted in Dafoe’s gravelly narration, and we are left to fill in the gaps in her relationships with her family, manager and fans.
What does play out on screen is an interesting but never remarkable backstage drama in which Celeste and her manager try to manage family rifts, grapple with the media, get high and stagger to the gig.
The film’s central reference to 9/11 — and Celeste’s role as a symbol of American victimhood and exceptionalism — remains frustratingly underdeveloped, and sometimes banal.
Corbet’s film lacks the poetry or breathing space to make his statement more eloquently (a far superior film about consumerism, terrorism and youth culture is Nocturama, on Netflix). By the time his heroine is belting out her third-rate songs in a sequined jumpsuit, you can’t help but wish you’d stayed home.
Vox Lux is in cinemas from February 21.
Source: ABC News