Vox Lux is a messy, mesmerising portrayal of a pop star’s damaged psyche
Having amassed an impressive list of acting credits by the age of 30 – including working with European heavyweights like Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke – Brady Corbet now seems intent on becoming a world-class filmmaker as well. His first film, 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader, may have featured a frustratingly-ambiguous narrative, but it was hard to fault Corbet’s arresting compositions and ambitious storytelling. Nearly three years later, Corbet’s sophomore effort Vox Lux shows even more signs of promise. Bizarre and pretentious it may be, but there’s no denying Vox Lux is a unique, fearless blast of arthouse cinema adrenaline.
The story of a teenage pop musician who grows into a disturbed, drug-fuelled megastar, Vox Lux begins in 1999 with a harrowing, Columbine-style school shooting. Sisters Celeste (played as a teenager by Raffey Cassidy) and Ellie (Stacy Martin) survive the attack, though Celeste takes a near-fatal bullet (the title sequence, depicting Celeste’s ambulance journey and set to the late Scott Walker’s bombastic score, is a stunner). Recovering in hospital, the sisters write a song that will ultimately propel Celeste to stardom whilst leaving Ellie in the sidelines. Nearly twenty years later, egomaniac Celeste (Natalie Portman) faces the fallout of a recent terrorist atrocity linked to her whilst terrorising Ellie, guiding her teenage daughter (Cassidy in a dual role), and preparing for the biggest concert of her career.
Though Portman’s aggressive, scenery-chewing performance has gained the most attention, Vox Lux’s hypnotic, haunting first half is the standout. From the moment Celeste unveils her and Ellie’s song for the masses, she’s ensnared by Jude Law’s brittle The Manager and manufactured into an icon, which Corbet lets unfold slowly as a provocative statement on how the media shapes and manipulates its young talents. Law and Martin are both great, though talented newcomer Cassidy steals the entire film as the bewildered-yet-strong victim who turns her tragedy into strength.
If there’s a problem with Vox Lux, it’s the Portman-dominated second half. Corbet never loses his touch as a director, crafting gorgeous and intense images with the help of ace cinematographer Lol Crawley, but he nearly loses the film to his leading performer. Natalie Portman is a fiercely-committed actress, yet her take on the grown-up Celeste (now fond of spacey art pop and flamboyant costumes in the style of Sia, who composed the film’s original music) feels too familiar. Allowing a fairly-typical out-of-control diva character to dominate the second hour is a dangerous move, and Corbet struggles to rein the character in and retain his unique perspective. By the time he climaxes with an indulgent Celeste concert, you wonder if he lost himself in a character who isn’t quite as interesting as he thinks.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to stay too annoyed. While Corbet has once again bitten off more than he can chew in terms of tackling grandiose themes and ideas (subtitling the film ‘A 21st Century Portrait’ is the first sign that Vox Lux is less smart than it thinks it is), his second feature is more ambitious and energetic than the majority of American indie films out there. Featuring stunning cinematography, stylised performances, and a killer Scott Walker score, Vox Lux is never dull, managing to thrill even when the screenplay shows its flaws. If Corbet continues to direct films as interesting and challenging as Vox Lux, he might just wind up being a masterful filmmaker.
By Harry J. Ford
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