Filmmaker Brady Corbet has built a career on pushing the envelope with past films like Funny Games and Martha Marcy May Marlene. This time around, he tries to disturb the storytelling mold by transforming Natalie Portman into a Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Sia-esque pop star. Portman’s performance in this role reads more as parody than satire, but the discussion surrounding her character’s rise to pop star fame is an intriguing one. Corbet connects what seems like polar ends of society – terrorism and pop music – and does it boldly, all through the very un-Pop narration of Willem Dafoe.
Corbet’s movie is split into two parts. The first half follows the rise of pop star Celeste’s career, from her humble beginnings in a small town to her sudden rise to fame after an act of terrorism puts her art front and center in the viral conversation surrounding the violence. We see hints at both of her burgeoning talent as well as her corruption within the music industry’s own violent world. The second part skips ahead roughly 15 years later, when Celeste has had a Britney-sized career behind her, has just released her umpteenth studio album, and is taking it on tour, with the current stop being at her hometown. When another terrorist attack is oddly connected to her career once again, we see how the world has changed and how it has changed her, resulting in a rich exploration of cultural causality in inciting and reacting to sex, fame, and violence.
This conversation is strongest in the film’s first half and is in large part due to performance and tone. Raffey Cassidy portrays young Celeste with a haunted quality – every move of choreography, every cooey note sung, we are taken on a warring journey of fear and determination that is lost in the latter half of the film. Cassidy has a certain look in her eye that transfixes and her performances of the early indie-er pop songs are magically unique in their awkwardness. Cut to Portman, her weathered and corny Long Island accent tempered by years of trash being thrown at her, and we are far less invested. That’s not to say that Portman doesn’t have her moments. She also has a look in her eye, a crazed one, that at least feeds into the character’s dangerous unpredictability.
Outside of character, Corbet plays a lot with form in a compelling way. Structuring the film as an over-serious mock biopic, carried through with Dafoe’s monotone narration, Corbet slaps a clear and darkly satirical tone onto the film, which suits it perfectly well. The sheer combination of pop music with institutional violence is a difficult tone to pull off, but Corbet finds a healthy balance between the two. This allows the audience to focus on the film’s main discussion: the nature and nurture of violence, its effect on culture and culture’s effect back onto it. He doesn’t necessarily provide any answers to the question, but sets up the conversation masterfully.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
This film is sure to be polarizing with audiences. It pushes the edge of art and is downright bizarre at times, but for those interested in the cultural themes, it will be a fascinating experience. The film creates a star in young Cassidy, puts Portman into another career-bending role, and contributes to Jude Law’s acting renaissance – Law actually steals the show in moments as Celeste’s fast-talking, foul-mouthed manager. In a year of filmmaking that failed to really push any artistic envelopes, Vox Lux is in the very least trying something different, and comes out successful on the whole.