Vox Lux

 

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The world of pop celebrity is set against the violence of our age.

 

Vox Lux

Natalie Portman

 

The directorial debut of the actor Brady Corbet, 2015's The Childhood of a Leader, certainly made a mark: it may have been less than wholly successful, but it was a true artistic endeavour made with no concessions to easy popular appeal. Exactly what that film wanted to say was not altogether clear but, on paper at least, it seemed unlikely that that would be an issue with the new work written and directed by Corbet. Its central character is a pop singer, Celeste, who finds fame in childhood and is then promoted leading to a career that has as many lows as highs with Celeste becoming prey to drugs, alcohol and a promiscuous high life. At the film's climax, Celeste is attempting a comeback when on the edge of a total breakdown: how will it go?

 

This is a tale familiar enough both in real life and in movies and initially the only novelty in Vox Lux is the way in which Celeste first comes to notice. She does so when just entering her teens and writing a song with her sister, but this happens while she is recovering from the trauma of being the sole survivor from a class gunned down by a schoolmate, an incident that has made her newsworthy  By linking the celebrity of pop stars with the limelight given by the media to gunmen and terrorists (a beach attack by masked men features later in the film), the movie is not only more topical (it describes itself as a 21st century portrait) but seems to move into new areas that are way beyond its general portrayal of the pop world as a commercial machine geared only to the market. Late on there is even a hint that in a godless age it is pop stars like Celeste who can hope to be worshipped by the masses. But these themes are never fully worked through.

 

Clearly there is potential here and the film's Prelude (as a title has it) set at the time of the schoolroom attack in 1999 is a very well judged sequence realistically handled. Unfortunately, Corbet then adopts a far more stylised approach over the following two Acts - the first shows the young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) given a career build-up in 2000 and the second finds her, now aged 32 and played by Natalie Portman, undertaking a comeback tour. Her story is told by an off-screen narrator, Willem Dafoe, but oddly enough he fills in the blanks in her history (so far as they are filled in at all, and several are not) long after we need to know them - for example, he refers to the fact that Celeste has a daughter, Albertine (a second role for Cassidy), but only does so after she has appeared as an unannounced character whose identity puzzles us.

 

With a score by the late Scott Walker and songs composed by Sia, music is certainly important here and, indeed, the film's finale goes to town showing Celeste's crucial stage comeback at unusual length. Portman, like Cassidy, does her own singing and relishes her role (in contrast to that, Jude Law as Celeste's manager and the ever-reliable Jennifer Ehle as a publicist get meagre pickings). Lol Crawley is the expert photographer and audiences who relish the atmosphere of pop music gigs may find much to engage them. But the fact that this is not my kind of music kept me at arm’s length and crucially I could not work out what balance was intended between the harsh, critical portrait of Celeste's world on the one hand and the film's indulgent presentation of Celeste moving her fans on the other. Corbet's aim here never becomes clear.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Raffey Cassidy, Christopher Abbott, Logan Riley Bruner, Maria Dizzia, Meg Gibson, Daniel London, Matt Servitto, and the voice of Willem Dafoe.

 

Dir Brady Corbet, Pro Christine Vachon, D.J. Gugenheim, Brian Young, Michel Litvak and Andrew Lauren, Screenplay Brady Corbet and Mona Fastvold, Ph Lol Crawley, Pro Des Sam Lisenco, Ed Matthew Hannam, Music Scott Walker, Costumes Keri Langerman.

 

Bold Films+Andrew Lauren Productions/Killer Films/Three Six Zero-Curzon Artificial Eye.
115 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 3 May 2019. Cert. 15.