By Kim Hughes
Without executive producers Natalie Portman and Jude Law attached as stars, and hit-maker Sia penning the set-piece songs (she also exec-produces), it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Vox Lux would get made. The film — subtitled in its closing credits as a “21st century portrait”— is a story virtually no one I can think of would want to watch.
Or rather, it’s a story about the kind of devastation we have all been watching in real life and in real time. There doesn’t seem to be much need to queue to observe mass school shootings and other terrorist-led atrocities plus artists going bonkers before a digital world. Just open the homepage of The Guardian.
And yet here is writer/director Brady Corbet’s blisteringly bleak film, with its disagreeable characters and its pretense as a kind of modern dystopian fable, narrated storybook-like by Willem Dafoe no less, where optics are everything and nothing, especially among the famous.
When we meet Celeste in 1999 — at this stage played by Raffey Cassidy, later by Portman — she is a Staten Island teenager “born on the wrong side of Reaganomics.” She survives a Columbine-style massacre, and while recuperating, begins songwriting with the help of her sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin).
At the memorial for her fallen classmates, Celeste sings an original song that catches fire with a battle-weary America. Record labels come calling and soon our girl is on her way, first to New York for demos and then to Sweden to create an album with a Max Martin-styled chart-topping producer.
Celeste and Eleanor’s parents essentially hand the girls over to an ethically ambiguous Manager (Law, one of several key characters named only for their vocation) and the film’s so-called Act 1 (“Genesis”) follows Celeste’s launch (though not ascension, it’s skipped over completely) to the pop ranks. There’s a pause to become pregnant and ponder with her hard-rocking British baby-daddy why pop music is the best solution for the world’s woes: so that “people don’t have to think too hard.” But we are quickly ushered into the future.
Enter 2017 and Celeste, now 31 and with a teen daughter (also played by Cassidy) in tow, is a train-wreck of a performer with a penchant for heavy makeup and very nasty outbursts. Her sister and the Manager remain by her side, but their roles have soured substantially. What follows in the film’s Act 2 (“Regenesis”) chapter is essentially a day in the life of Celeste, notably the day she is launching her comeback tour from hometown New York.
A series of small and large calamities — a terrorist attack in Croatia perpetrated by scoundrels wearing (coincidentally or purposefully) masks made popular by Celeste; bitter quarrels with her sister/daughter/manager; heaps of drugs and alcohol — tear up the floorboards of Celeste’s day. Then it’s opening night.
Visually speaking, Vox Lux is consistently interesting with Corbet, cinematographer Lol Crawley, and editor Matthew Hannam creating worlds that veer from palpably oppressive (the early high school scenes) to kaleidoscopic (the performance pieces) to thrillingly chaotic (a drug-taking scene featuring Celeste and the Manager shot at warp-speed).
But in the end, all the sorrow and horror and anger and angst just seem pointless despite Corbet’s stated intention to juxtapose the meaningless against the tragic. Perhaps, taken alongside Her Smell — another nihilist rock and roll drama that played TIFF last fall — the messy-female-musician-as-avatar-for-society’s-ills is a thing. Maybe others will care more about Celeste’s fate than I did. I am keen to hear why.
Vox Lux. Written and directed by Brady Corbet. Starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin and Jennifer Ehle. Opens in Toronto December 21. Opening in other markets in the weeks that follow.