"That's what I love about pop music. I don't want people to think too hard. I just want them to feel good." – Celeste
Boy, there's something so comforting about those fairy tales in which an unknown talent is plucked from obscurity to live out a dream of being rich and famous. We got a big ol' tissue-grabber along those lines this year ... what was it, about a star being born? Nothing bad can happen during a birth, right?
Well, Vox Lux is not A Star Is Born. It's more like some kind of glitter-bombing Toxic Avenger, forged from the deadly waste that had to melt off the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga remake in order to make that story of unchecked music stardom palatable to a mass audience. If you thought alcoholism was the worst thing that could happen to a dream, then, friends, you thought wrong.
Brady Corbet's second film as writer-director is a popstar mythmaker of epic, fable-like proportions, charting a small-town teen named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) who vaulted into the national spotlight after a horrific tragedy grants an opening, through Hell, into her budding music career. Mentally and physically unprepared for the scrutiny that follows her unexpected fame, the older Celeste (Natalie Portman in a five-alarm performance) spirals into a prism of self-loathing as she sells her image and essence, the very fact of her survival, to an insatiable industry and public. The film is drowning in lush colors and big, flamboyant makeup and hairstyles, all of them consuming Celeste while her dream-self barrels down a long, dark tunnel, unsure of what will await her on the other side.
The pivotal tragedy occurs in the film's first five minutes, yet describing it in detail would push expectations for Vox Lux into the territory of one type of film when it is most assuredly in another. (Of equal importance to the act itself is the fact that it takes place in a music class.) What can be said is that the movie, in its two cleaved halves, conjures many different spectrums of violent death: political and personal, grandiose and self-inflicted, through different hands from 1999 through the present day. All inform, or are informed by, Celeste and the kind of art she makes: vaguely uplifting dance-pop that's abstract enough in its message to find a home in many different corners of the universe. "Sci-fi anthems," she tells a reporter in a demonic voice. "An experience that's as relentless and addictive as possible."
Think Sia, because she wrote the disturbingly jaunty songs featured in the movie and also serves as an executive producer. Also think Lady Gaga, because Vox Lux is a more precise rendering of her global aesthetic than Gaga's own serviceable-yet-gooey acoustic jams in that other movie. Maybe think Gypsy and Mama Rose, for the tear of monstrous behavior that somehow adds up to a fully exposed human. And finally, think the entire spectrum of celebrity breakdowns, from Sinead O'Connor to Britney Spears, Marilyn Monroe to Kanye West. All of them feed into Portman's gum-chewing, eye-rolling, angel-winged persona: her fears, tics, politics of pure narcissism ("I'm the new faith"), and self-destructive tendencies. And all of them inform, in no small way, the bleak and miserable world we live in today.
Corbet is biting off a lot here, like he did in his directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader. Some of his points about the direction of our celebrity-and-violence-obsessed culture feel obvious in the rearview mirror, but seeing the umpteenth movie about this stuff shimmer with an actual purpose is invigorating.
It would be easy to call Portman's performance just more of the broad, camp-baiting work that won her an Oscar for Black Swan, or to dismiss her as "overacting" just because it's operatic in tone. Doing so would overlook all the different spirits she's channeling into an uncompromising whole, the rage and fear she carries until it's time to shine to her fans. Jude Law, as her manager, has the most menacing role of the piece: Initially presenting himself as a champion and defender of her integrity, he eventually reveals himself to be as vampiric and manipulative as everyone else in Celeste's orbit. Less well-developed is the relationship between Celeste and her sister (Stacy Martin), who's meant to be a pivotal figure in her life but never quite gets the opportunity to prove it.
Is this broad and bloody canvas, on a whole, too much? Sure. Portman's pompadour and blubbering temper tantrums are too much. Willem Dafoe's narration, hitting every beat of every theme, is too much. The double-casting of Cassidy, as both the young Celeste and the elder's teenage daughter, is a naughty trick to pull, and it's also too much. And the in-concert climax, set entirely onstage with the pumping bass and front-row seats to the hand-waving choreography, is much too much. It is, after all, an experience that's as relentless and addictive as possible.
But the magic of the movie is exactly this: its grand ambitions, the way it reaches for the stars just as Celeste commands all her "little angels" to do. A film with this much style, ambition and potency shouldn't be dismissed with lazy, empty words like "pretentious." It should be celebrated as prophecy.