What to make of the deeply strange Vox Lux? Actor turned writer/director Brady Corbet centers on the tragedy-strewn life of a female pop star to explore celebrity, sisterhood, motherhood, and terrorism. But while his sophomore effort is wildly ambitious, it’s more confounding than captivating, and ultimately underwhelming.
Natalie Portman stars as Celeste, but you won’t see this A-list actress brandishing a deliciously thick Staten Island accent and a sharp sneer until the film’s second half. Vox Lux begins long before, when Celeste wasn’t a solo-named international icon as famous for her music as for her off stage exploits, which include drunken binges, a violent car accident, and outbursts of racial slurs. At 14, Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy) was a mild-mannered student with a love of music, but no extraordinary talent. However, after surviving a grisly school shooting, Celeste writes and performs a song at the memorial service which unexpectedly launches her to stardom. Corbet’s script races through these defining years of early fame with montages of night club gallivanting, brief scenes of dance rehearsals and recording sessions, and an egregious amount of wistful voiceover, performed by Willem Dafoe.
Who Dafoe is meant to be in his position as narrator is never clear. Perhaps one of the many journalists or paparazzi that breathlessly follow Celeste’s every move? Perhaps the unshakeable advocate of which she dreams? Perhaps God or even the devil? Regardless, it’s he who will fill in the story between sequences, as well as explain every emotion Celeste, her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), her manager (Jude Law), and eventually her teen daughter (Cassidy again) will feel. (Heavens forbid we rely on dialogue or trust in performance for that!) Dafoe’s delivery has a calm tenor with a hint of bemusement. So, paired with the heavy lifting of his lines, this device and its muted whimsy feels snatched from Wes Anderson. But nowhere else is Vox Lux remotely twee.
It is a film of fitful moods, swinging from grim to hopeful, foreboding to fiery. This is made all the more jarring by its structure, divided into teen Celeste’s rise to fame and 31-year-old Celeste’s bitter battle to redemption. The film feels crudely bisected, like a magician’s assistant sawed in two, then stitched back together with vital bits missing, like her heart or spine. There’s little connective tissue between the the halves, not even the accent, which Portman employs and Cassidy ignores. Cassidy depicts Celeste as an almost eerily calm girl, even in the face of a gun-brandishing psycho. Then, a supposedly shocking hook-up is sloppily offered up as a breaking point before Portman strides in, cocky, crass, and dangerously defiant. There’s no journey through this character change, no transition, just narration. The mood shifts from elegiac and tender to chaotic and wired. The plot attempts a half-hearted parallel with another mass shooting, this one potentially inspired by one of Celeste’s music videos. And so the switchover is raw and ugly.
Inarguably, Portman is captivating. As Celeste faces a small army of reporters thirsty for a fresh scandal or new angle, she crackles with challenging tongue pops, outbursts of frustration, and self-sabotaging declarations about art, feminism, and vanity. It’s exhilarating to watch Portman’s manic spin from press conference performance to awkward mother-daughter moment, to a fiercely vulnerable breakdown ahead of the big comeback concert. Portman is bigger than this gawky movie, and breathes a life into the deeply flawed yet charismatic Celeste that had me hungering for more. But Corbet fails us and his star.
The trauma of the shootings only interests Corbet as far as how they’d shape Celeste’s fame and mar her spine. Depicted with dread and ghoulish detail, they are provocative set pieces that shock then fade into the background, a buzz among nattering naysayers. Similarly, the thread about Celeste’s strained relationship with her sister feels like an afterthought. Their conflict is introduced at the end of the first half–through narration, naturally–then is picked up 18 years with Eleanor’s hangdog expression and Celeste sparking with passive aggression. Just as abruptly, her daughter Albertine is introduced, mainly as a means of showing that Celeste has sacrificed her family to her ruthless ambition. A monologue about this comes out in a tangle of pride and remorse, which is exhilarating in the hands of Portman. But that’s not to say it’s satisfying within the story.
To be frank, the first hour is a bore. Then next flashes with pop glamor, fierce attitude, and rock n’ roll clichés: drug, booze, sex–and all in a single montage! Then, Corbet leads us to the big show in her hometown. Though Celeste is world famous, this is meant to be a defining moment of validation. This is her chance to prove to the world that she is a survivor, to prove to her sister she deserves the success borne from a grotesque tragedy, to prove to her daughter that her negligence has a value. But what Corbet and Portman deliver in the finale is not the show-stopping spectacle of such big budget musical dramas as A Star Is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody. And that absolutely muddles its success and even its meaning.
Portman, who was riveting as a ballet dancer in Black Swan, feels out of her depth the moment she steps on stage in this pop persona. She’s shown more bravado in the rap sketches on Saturday Night Live. The dance choreography lets her down, being woefully uninspired, looking about on the level of what you’d see at an intro aerobics class. There are pop stars who can’t dance. But a sharp concert director knows how to work around such obstacles, by bringing wow-factor in costume, lighting, and other spectacle. Whether Corbet didn’t have the sense or the budget to do this, I couldn’t say. But the costumes are actually distractingly basic. The almost squalidly small troop of back-up dancers all wears simple, shimmery leotards, each in a different color. It’s the kind of thing you might see at a school play. Celeste is striking with bold make-up and silver-painted hair, but her black bodysuit with a silver accent feels downright matronly in this setting. The stage design is nearly non-existent, though a massive screen behind her projects words meant to carry weighty meaning: Past, Present, Future. But worst of all, the music in this movie is absolutely forgettable. There’s no “Shallows” standout for this star is born narrative. Each of Celeste’s tunes has the same ambiguous dance-pop vibe, bleeding into each other with no lyrics catchy enough to latch on to or cheer over.
As I watched this prolonged concert scene, I felt nothing and so wondered if it being underwhelming was precisely the point. Maybe we’re meant to see all of Celeste’s efforts led only to auto-tuned mediocrity decked out in cheap glitter. But reaction shots to Celeste’s family and friends beaming with pride among a flood of hooting fans suggests not. It would seem this amateurish display is meant to be Celeste’s crowning achievement, with no self-awareness of how it falls short. I wanted to make sense of this climactic mess. But as I pondered any other explanation for Corbet’s abysmal attempt at capturing the energy and excitement of a stupendous concert, the film cut to black. It was over. And I was left in the dark, stewing over what was the point, not convinced there is one.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com