Film Review: Vox Lux (USA, 2018) is as dazzling as it is divisive

What is it about stories about the rise to stardom that makes it so fascinating to audiences? Is it because it resembles a wish fulfillment fantasy? Or is it because it resembles a cautionary tale? Either way, it is a well-worn formula, that has been the backbone of well-regarded films, including 2018 films A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody.

But there has been one film released in 2018 that has garnered some very polarizing reactions. A film that is both reviled and praised for its impressionistic and expressionistic style of storytelling and for its bombastic lead performance from its leading actress. That film is Brady Corbet‘s Vox Lux, starring Natalie Portman.

Vox Lux is Corbet’s second film, after his critically acclaimed directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader. While the two films are vastly different in style and filmmaking, there is a thematic through-line that connects these two films, which is about the inherent darkness within, shown over long periods of time. Is Vox Lux deserving of acclaim as much as Corbet’s debut film? Or does it deserve the moniker of being the sophomore slump?

Taking place in a span of 18 years, the film starts off in 1999. Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is a 13-year-old music prodigy who survives a horrific school shooting in her hometown of Staten Island. During the incredibly bleak period, her talent shines through during the memorial service when she sings a song that touches the hearts of the mourners.

Guided by her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) and her talent manager (Jude Law), the young talent transforms into a rising pop star with a promising future. Eighteen years later, Celeste (Natalie Portman) now finds herself on the comeback trail when a scandal, personal struggles and the pitfalls of fame threaten her career as well as her well-being.

How does Vox Lux fare as the sophomore effort for director Corbet? There is no doubt that the film is undeniably well-made, due to being incredibly ambitious in its stylistic approach, its use of the stirring musical score and songs by composer Scott Walker and popstar Sia and its vibrant yet tactile cinematography by Lol Crawley (shot on 35mm Kodak), but does it all add up to something? Surprisingly, it does. But it is a bit of a rocky journey to get through.

Let’s get through the negatives first. Vox Lux is more of a vehicle for director Corbet and not much for lead actress Natalie Portman, who only appears in the second half of the film. The use of chapter titles, the peculiar reverse opening credits, the off-kilter audio visual tricks, the tone-navigating narration, Corbet really wants you to know that he directed this film. And while the in-your-face style is quite effective in immersing the audience into the journey that Celeste goes through, the filmmaking influences also become quite apparent to the point that the film feels like a greatest filmmakers hits album, rather than an original voice.

With nods to Lars Von Trier (chapter titles, the amusingly dry and ironic narration from Antichrist star Willem Dafoe), Gus Van Sant (the scenes of mass shootings are shot in a realistically distant and clinical approach), Ken Russell (showing psychological horror via music culture, similar to Lisztomania and Tommy) and Michael Haneke (the off-screen violence is shocking in how suggestive it is), it feels like Corbet is trying to show you his collection of films he likes, to the point that the initiated might be put off. It even breaks rules of logic, as to how the people in the life of Celeste do not age, as the same type of thing happens in Lars Von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac (also starring Stacy Martin).

Speaking of being put off, Vox Lux also comes across as exploitative with its use of references to 9/11 alongside the mass shootings. Corbet never digs down as to why they’re happening and the use of them in the film can come across as manipulative and cheap. The latter description can also apply to the narration, which can come across as lazy as it patches up characterizations, without providing the actors any material to chew on. Like in a scene in the second half that grinds the film to a halt to deliver exposition to what happened to Celeste in the time gap.

But just like how one can see a glass as half-empty, one can see it as half-full; and on that note, let’s jump to the positives. The acting from all involved are stellar and give life to their characters, however thinly developed they are in the script. Supporting roles by Jennifer Ehle, Christopher Abbott, Maria Dizzia and others all do well with their variable screentime.

Jude Law plays the unnamed Manager as acerbic and slimy (so much so, you would think he leaves a trail wherever he walks), but eventually becomes a father figure to Celeste, and Law does quite well in portraying those facets of the character.

Stacy Martin (who was also in Corbet’s 2016 film, The Childhood of a Leader) is fantastic as Ellie, the taciturn sister of the two. She gives an understated performance that perfectly encapsulates the feelings of conflict within eg. her anger, her concern and her happiness for her sister.

Raffey Cassidy (who was great in 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is the surprising stand-out of Vox Lux, as she manages to combine naivety, the inner life and especially the conflicting emotions of her wants and needs in striving for her best self, in contrast to her honest self. Even in her scenes where her character rehearses her dances (after undergoing physical therapy), her physicality manages to show a transformative quality in her way to adapt to the routine that is quite striking.

Natalie Portman takes on the narcissism, the world-weariness and the emotionally volatile state of Celeste with gusto and verve, even if her performance can be quite off-putting to the point of being farcical, due to her rusty accent and the stark contrast to Cassidy’s performance.

As much as the style is derivative of a lot of filmmaking influences, some of it is undeniably effective. While the bridge between her younger Celeste and the adult Celeste is quite a bit hard to see or believe, the collective of Portman, Cassidy (in dual roles) and director Corbet do provide ample proof to make the bridge quite effective.

For example, having Cassidy play both the younger version of Celeste as well as her daughter (as well as how some of the actors not aging) is a polarizing in a realistic sense, yet somehow wise move in a expressionistic sense, in showing how adult Celeste still views the world and the people around her.

Another example is how the adult Celeste character is written, which is surprisingly with a Napoleonic sense. In other words, her history was at first seen as a tragedy, but presently, it’s now seen as a farce, and Portman’s performance reflects that. Especially during a scene of a press conference, where she references her past in an self-deprecating and barbed fashion.

The sense also links to the present use of youths using social media, and how public opinion can be swift in its judgement of current events, and yet somehow brutally apathetic in how they view past events, to the point that it becomes a punchline. The narration also provides credence to ti, as it navigates the tone of the film between sincerity and irony.

What is also effective is the climax, where we see the final result of Celeste’s character arc through a garish, pop concert. The pitiful, human side of Celeste disappears and we see the star persona that she has come to perfect over the years, and it works in how ambiguous it comes across, whether it can be seen as a fairy tale ending that Celeste has always wanted or a cautionary ending of how much fame has taken a toll of her.

As much as this verbose review will take a toll on the reader, I’ll stop here. Vox Lux is a confounding, derivative and self-indulgent piece of work, thanks to its blatant references to other directors’ work, lack of logic and its utter refusal to provide context for the audience to savour. And yet, Vox Lux is also a visually vibrant film that manages to challenge the audience by being provocative, shocking and undeniably illuminating with its portrayal of the dangers of stardom. Your mileage may vary, but is definitely a memorable experience.

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Vox Lux is in cinemas today, 21st February 2019.

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