Savina Petkova on Brady Corbet’s ‘Vox Lux’ (2018)
If talent is enhanced by suffering, and fame proceeds grave circumstances, then 14-year-old Celeste (Natalie Portman) was destined to be great. In his new feature, director Brady Corbet investigates another messy path of growing up, following his directorial feature debut, The Childhood of a Leader (2015). Vox Lux is a luminous, merciless satire that plays on themes of trauma, self-deprecation, and the therapeutic role of art. Subtitled as “A Twenty-First Century Portrait”, the film is a fictional biopic concerning the conjured up persona, Celeste Montgomery, narrated by the sonorous voice of Willem Dafoe. The role of Celeste is in turn presented by brilliant Raffey Cassidy (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) in her teenage years and later portrayed by ruthless, and punchy Portman, both singing pop songs written by sensational artist Sia.
The film starts off in an extreme manner, depicting a mass shooting at an American high school. The killer is a troubled boy, whose hand does not even tremble when he executes the music teacher, nor when he puts a bullet in the spine of his classmate Celeste. In a tragicomic sequence of events, the girl decides to repress her trauma and address the world with music. Fast-forward, teenage Celeste pretentiously cuts off her manager (dashingly caring Jude Law) when he wants to ease her into the music industry. With the great help of her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin, recall Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac I), Celeste lives up to her name (Latin for “sky”) flying high in the sky of eternal fame. Within the first part of the film, named “Genesis”, Cassidy’s portrayal of the young pop star showcases the repressed trauma of the past and her sublimation attempts. Such an excellent psychological portrait of Celeste testifies to Cassidy’s follow up on her Lanthimos role, as well as ascension to higher fame, much like her character. Her physical work and corporeality combine the fragility of a teenage ballerina with an injured spine, with the immense ambition of a future star. The bitter truth is that her ambition feeds off her near-death experience, leaving her robbed of a childhood and more dead than alive.
In a sequence portraying Celeste’s only on-screen intimate moment, she confesses to a musician she meet in a random club that she has a recurring nightmare of driving through an endless tunnel, passing dead versions of herself. This strong image lingers on her persona as a ghost, and the film succeeds in painting the broad strokes of her character drenched with gloom and disquiet, to contrast it with flamboyant style for the stage. Her pop persona is swashbuckling head to toe: glitter, heavy makeup, sequins, faux leather, and diverse “choker” necklaces to hide her bullet scar. As the first act of the film concludes by 9/11 and the Twin Towers crash, the narrator voice parallels “Celeste’s loss of innocence with that of the nation.”
In act two, “Regenesis 2017”, the tonal difference is sharpened by the ellipsis of time, showcasing how everything has changed, or mutated as a growing tumour in the life of the rich and famous, while anxieties have only multiplied. The opening night of Celeste’s celebratory homecoming gig, titled “Vox Lux”, or Voice Light (the play on Latin has lots to do with ephemerality and immortality). Natalie Portman is thirty year old Celeste, and Raffey Cassidy now portrays her daughter Albertine. A world that is upside down is marked by a mass shooting on a Croatian beach resort, with the killers masked similarly to Celeste’s trademark first music video. Comparisons between terrorist and pop stars, their shared thirst for representation and recognition, shape the grim second half of Vox Lux.
The light from the title seems to illuminate only from the singer’s costumes and glitter hairstyles, while the world attacks her messy personal life in press conferences. Vulture-like journalists reveal the covered-up alcoholism, hushed car accident, and the power of celebrities to keep out of their own caused troubles. An epitome of a childhood-less child growing up, Celeste has had a daughter at a young age, unsuccessful relationships, media scandals, and irresponsible behaviour in both public and private life. Filled with uncontrolled rage towards her manager and her sister, the pop star is seemingly on the constant verge of a nervous breakdown. Portman’s performance is one of a gradual descent into madness, reminiscent of her masterwork in Black Swan (2010).
A brilliantly cohesive biopic, Vox Lux holds its characters in the tight grip of all that is wrong with our contemporary world, while being attentive to personal traumas and their self-destructive outpour. A portrait of stardom as both solid and liquid; one that can break at any time, yet remains one and whole as a idol to the audience’s eyes. The end of the film is an extended sequence of Celeste’s concert show, dance routines to several songs about empowerment and perseverance. While the viewers have the private knowledge of her weaknesses and drug addiction, the audience sees the strong cult icon they need. After all, stars are what we make of them, and they exist because of our demand. More than an allegory for the moral downfall of the West, Vox Lux is an exquisite new hybrid masterpiece: a critical eulogy to the subsuming power of popularity. Or, as a demon whispered into Celeste’s ear in her death-limbo, “One for the money, two for the show, on three we get ready, and on four, we go.”
Screened as part of International Film Festival Rotterdam and scheduled for UK release 3 May 2019.