Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Movie Review: Vox Lux

Vox Lux **** / *****
Directed by: Brady Corbet.
Written by: Brady Corbet.
Starring: Natalie Portman (Celeste), Raffey Cassidy (Young Celeste / Albertine), Stacy Martin (Eleanor), Jude Law (The Manager), Willem Dafoe (Narrator), Christopher Abbott (The Journalist), Jennifer Ehle (Josie the Publicist), Maria Dizzia (Ms. Dwyer). 
Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux is a draining experience – from its harrowing first scene, to the final scene that we feel should be full of joy, but instead feels purposefully hollow and empty. The film is about pop superstardom, and yet even after the film is over, I don’t really know what Corbet or anyone else involved in the film thinks about pop superstardom – or the star at the films core. That isn’t always a bad thing, and here, it is in fact, one of the movie’s chief strengths. The character at its core is a cypher – who perhaps even herself doesn’t know why she does what she does.
The film is split into two halves, each starting with a startling act of violence. In 2000, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), then just 14, is in her school, when a classmate walks in with a gun and shoots many of the kids there – including Celeste, who survives, but with a spinal injury. When she sings a song at a memorial service, she becomes a national symbol of hope. She also gets sucked into the music industry, who of course is known for chewing up and spitting out teenage pop stars. Her older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), tries to keep an eye on her – but she’s in her early 20s herself, and likes all the attention and parties they are going to. Flash forward 17 years, and Celeste is now played by Natalie Portman – and is still one of the biggest pop stars in the world. She is brash and bold, still partying hard, and still suffering from the same trauma – but now with bigger consequences. She has a teenage daughter herself, Albertine (played by Cassidy again) and during one long day in a hotel as she prepares for a concert in her hometown of Staten Island, we get a sense of what Celeste’s life is like. Dealing with reporters, who ask indelicate questions, fighting with her daughter, her sister, being kowtowed to her staff, being confronted by fans, etc. It is a strange life – and not one Celeste is handling all that well. Yet still, she goes out on stage at the end and gives it her all.
The film was written and directed by Brady Corbet, a talented actor turned even more talented filmmaker. His first film was 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader, about a bratty child, who we are told, we grow into a dictator. That film felt a little bit too much like Corbet aping his clear inspiration – Michael Haneke (who directed Corbet in the English version of Funny Games) – despite all the very obvious skill on display. Vox Lux still has some Haneke like signifiers – the opening in particular – but it is when Corbet truly comes into his own as a filmmaker. His film flies high without a safety net – and he requires his actors to do the same. Portman is going to get all the buzz for the movie – and there are reasons why, because this is a bold, brash go for the jugular type of performance. It is Portman showing off, and daring anyone to keep up, or call her out. In some ways, Cassidy’s dual roles are more difficult however. As a young Celeste, she evolves in a way that the older Celeste stopped doing years ago. You fear for her, as she is falling down a rabbit hole of excess, and you are powerless to stop her – and you realize no one is going to even try. As Albertine, she has a to play a teenager who grew up surrounded by insanity, by a mother who is both absent, and yet strangely overprotective. Martin, who was so good in the first part of Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, is also great as Eleanor – the woman who has had to put her dreams on hold because of her sister’s success – and how that has dimmed who she once was.
That Vox Lux was released during the same season as A Star is Born is appropriate. Both are about young women who become pop star – but one is confident and assured, and knows who it is she wants to be, and why she is doing it. In Celeste’s case, she is hurtling through life – as she hurtles through that tunnel on the motorcycle – unsure of who she is, or what she wants. Both movies end with the female lead singing a song – for A Star is Born, it’s a heartfelt ode to her husband. For Vox Lux it’s a huge production number with costume changes, backup dancers and screaming fans. And it’s so much more hollow and meaningless. The two films complement each other in interesting ways – with Vox Lux being the dark side of A Star is Born’s fantasy. This is an interesting, troubling film. One you cannot shake, and cannot (at least on one viewing) completely wrap your head around.

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