Vox Lux

Studio: NEON
Directed by Brady Corbet

Dec 05, 2018 Web Exclusive
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A common complaint about popular films is that they don’t respect the intelligence of their audience, whether they’re blockbuster sequels, heavy handed “message” movies or preening Oscar bait. But while it’s always nice to be reminded that subtle, emotionally nuanced popcorn films can and do exist, it’s equally instructive - if less fun - to remember that there are also off-beat art films that don’t trust their audience to draw even the broadest conclusions for themselves. Such is the case of Vox Lux, the sophomore feature by actor turned writer/director Brady Corbet, a stylistic, ambitious portrait of violence and fame in 21st century America that never manages to get out of its own way.

Structured as two acts and an epilogue, Vox Lux is the story of Celeste, a young woman who survives a school shooting in 1999. Her performance of an original song at a eulogy for the victims - featuring Celeste on vocals and her older sister Eleanor on keys - snowballs into a pre-Internet viral sensation and a record deal. Barely sixteen, Celeste finds herself flown to Europe to record an album that transforms her into an international pop sensation. The film then flashes forward to 2017 where a thirty-one year-old Celeste finds her comeback tour derailed by a mass shooting in Croatia perpetrated by men wearing masks popularized by her first music video, as well as personal strife with her sister, her manager and a teenage daughter of her own.

Corbet’s various stylistic and technical choices announce his ambition and iconoclasm at every turn, for better or for worse. The first half covers the months following the shooting as Celeste recovers from her injuries, meets her nameless manager - a delightfully boorish Jude Law - and starts down the long road to megastardom. Actor Raffey Cassidy portrays young Celeste as a deer in headlights, inexorably being pushed into the maw of fame by executives, publicists and an American public obsessed with her tragic origin story. The character doesn’t fully come into focus until the second half, where she is played by Natalie Portman, while Cassidy is recast as Celeste’s daughter, Albertine. Cassidy’s dual roles are Corbet’s biggest gimmick, one which manages to be broadly successful. Despite being a bit of a cypher as young Celeste and the fact that the character’s older and younger versions have almost nothing in common, the choice generates a powerful - if obvious - motivator for Celeste to not damage her daughter in the same way she damaged her past self. The film’s strongest scene by far is a lengthy one in a New York City diner where a strung-out, hyper-anxious Celeste attempts to relate to her daughter, allowing Cassidy’s poised reserve to clash dramatically with Portman’s performative bluster.

Despite the casting gimmick, Albertine ends up feeling mostly like an afterthought outside the aforementioned scene. Both Celeste and Portman are the stars of the show here. Much will likely be made of Portman’s Staten Island accent - it’s fine - and her evocations of Lady Gaga -  they’re mostly superficial; Gaga is far more intelligent and self-controlled - but her performance is nothing if not committed. As an actress, Portman can’t help but project intelligence and poise; whether that’s wrong for the character or gives Celeste some unexpected depth will be up to the audience. Ultimately, the most interesting real-life touchstone for the character isn’t Lady Gaga or Britney Spears or Ariana Grande, but Donald Trump, another megalomaniacal, attention-craving New Yorker whose day-to-day life is barely held together by an army of beleaguered assistants. Celeste is certainly more sympathetic, having faced actual hardship and possessing some shred of awareness regarding her myriad failings, but the parallels aren’t hard to spot. This would qualify as one of the more subtle commentaries in the film, if Corbet wasn’t determined to spoil it via one of the most notorious crutches in any screenwriter’s toolkit: the voice over.

Supplied with wry omniscience by Willem Dafoe, the voice over in Vox Lux is some of the most obnoxious, overwritten, obvious and interminable in recent memory, made all the worse by appearing in a film that clearly aspires to be ambiguous and inscrutable to your average theater-goer. It pops up to explain backstory, to describe how characters are feeling, to explain subtext. It pops up so often that Corbet at one point has to switch to slow-motion during a shot of two characters walking down the street to allow Dafoe to read paragraphs of exposition about a past incident that the characters will discuss amongst themselves two scenes later. It’s a deeply ill-conceived pander and nothing would be lost by stripping it from the film entirely in the tradition of the director’s cut of Blade Runner.

Worst of all, the voice over only draws further attention to Corbet’s inability to wring a clear statement from the various hot button issues he raises. The two scenes of mass violence in the film are undeniably chilling in spite of - or perhaps because of - their oblique presentation, but it remains unclear what Corbet’s conclusions about our current national epidemic is, beyond that it’s terrible. An otherwise unrelated scene of young Celeste in Europe hearing about the events of 9/11 only bolsters the case that the film is more interested in the shocking nature of these events than any response to them. More interesting is the film’s inquiries into the toxic nature of fame, but despite game performances and Corbet cribbing as many on-the-ground handheld following shots as he can without having to pay Darren Aronofsky royalties, even that aspect never fully rings true. Despite having ascended to popularity in the early 2000s, Celeste’s music sounds exactly like the music of the current decade - all her songs were composed by Sia - rather than the music that was popular during the early Bush years. This could be meant to show that Celeste was ahead of her time, but it ultimately feels like the filmmakers were less interested in why people are obsessed with her music and were only concerned with telling us that they are. Smaller details - like the 31 year-old Celeste making a Perry Mason reference in 2017 - only further the disconnect between the film and any kind of recognizable cultural grounding. Ambiguity has grown shamefully scarce in mainstream filmmaking, but Vox Lux does the problem no favors by endlessly explaining its own supposed inscrutability.


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