Natalie Portman’s newest film Vox Lux brings forward several strong ideas worthy of discussion, but some of these work against the filmmakers experiments with form. It’s unfortunate that the film will almost certainly be divisive both, due to the graphic and disturbing violence that starts the film and the structure chosen by the filmmakers for the rest. Vox Lux is a character drama at its core, and at its best is a meta-critique of our cultural era through the lens of celebrity.
Directed by Brady Corbet, the film is divided into four parts, following the life of fictional pop star Celeste, whose rise to fame starts after she survived an incredibly violent event. At age 14 she and her sister wrote and sang a song at the memorial event, and the video was broadcast nationwide, making both her song and her story famous overnight.
It’s both a biopic of a (fictional) artist, and a lament of the world that made her into a traumatized, cynical addict whose only goal in life is to make people feel good. That’s not a bad goal for a person, but it just doesn’t work when the goal is met in the midst of cyclical self-destructive behaviors and chronic physical pain. She can’t feel good without music, dance, drugs, and alcohol. Her fans feel good as a result of her music, so for her, the two are always connected. Everything else brings her pain. Young Celeste is played by the amazing Raffey Cassidy, and plays her daughter in 2017 as well. Portman’s scenes are largely her and one other actor in conversation, but much of it is almost a monologue with the flood of dialogue, or possibly even a series of interviews.
The events of the film begin in 1999, the same year as the massacre at Columbine High School. Celeste’s first music video comes out just after 9/11, and everything in between then and the present, a blur. Interestingly, the division between the two time periods is marked not only by the chapters, but also visually: a scene at a rock club in 2001 has an accuracy of style and atmosphere that made those scenes feel like a proper documentary. The last part of the film brings catharsis, if you let it.
Celeste’s music is very early 2000s pop, and mixes together Britney Spears, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and even some Imogen Heap. In the present, she isn’t necessarily washed up as much as she is messed up; she brings a confusing mix of pain and joy every time she prepares for a performance. The music and lyrics are by Sia, and sung by Portman. It’s here that things get meta, with the knowledge of Sia’s career and of her personal struggles, it makes hearing the songs in the film’s context more complicated. Portman nails Celeste’s complete lack of stability, and I can’t help but be reminded of the 2017 documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, in which Lady Gaga is shown in constant physical pain but with a desire to continue performing, even if it hurts her more. The film never lets the superstar shine at the height of her fame because that success is not the focus because, as Celeste says, people only care about the rebirth.
The downside is that the whole movie is framed by an omniscient narrator (Willem Dafoe) who serves as both a mouthpiece for dark wit and exposition, so it becomes distracting. It does more than guide the audience slightly out of the film for contextual purposes. It actually makes the film feel disjointed, and spoils the carefully crafted atmosphere. Rather than create an alternate mockumentary perspective (albeit a very dark one) to contrast the more straightforward film, the narrator intrusively reminds you that she’s fucked up and if she were the one telling the story she’d be unreliable. It’s just not fun in the way it wants to be, and the audience will get that information from the second half of the film, anyway.
Vox Lux wants to cover a lot, and in several ways is successful in executing the vision it set out to achieve. There are flaws, perhaps from too much ambition, and if the sound mix isn’t right the whole film becomes a wash. It is an intense experience, but it is also realistic in enough ways that there is genuine substance beneath the glitter. It’s just sad that there are reference points for a story like this one in the first place. The film does not pontificate a political or social perspective. It shows one aspect of what actually is happening globally, and also that the show does indeed go on.