The opening scene of writer-director Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux might throw you for a loop if you go into the movie completely cold. It certainly did for me. All I knew about the film was that it was about a pop star in various stages of her life, one of those stages she’s played by the great Natalie Portman. So when the film opened with a horrific mass shooting in a school, I was looking around and wondering if perhaps I had the details wrong and found myself at a different screening room. Nope. This was the opening scene of Vox Lux, and it’s a shocking and terrifying opening to the movie. However, as the film progresses it become apparent that this opening scene has little thematic or dramatic depth and simply serves and exploitative launching point for a tedious movie that attempts to tackle a lot of various topics but doesn’t have anything to say.
Vox Lux unfolds in two acts. One entitled Genesis, which covers the opening mass shooting in 2000 through the character’s rise to stardom in 2001, and the second entitled Regenesis, which oversees the popstar’s triumphant return to the stage in 2017. Portions of the film are narrated by Willem Dafoe, whose familiar voice lends a bit of credibility to the wordy and ridiculous moments of narration.
In that horrific shooting that opens the film, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) miraculously survives, the bullet fired at her hitting her neck and becoming lodged in her vertebrae. While recovering in the hospital, Celeste practices on a little keyboard provided to her by her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), who just so happened to be sick on the day of the fateful massacre. On the day of a memorial for the victims of the shooting, Celeste and her sister perform a song they wrote instead giving a teary-eyed speech. This moment captured on a national news cameras propels young Celeste to the spotlight, and soon she’s travelling to New York to record demos with her new music manager (Jude Law) and meeting publicists. This soft spoken girl who survived a moment of untold horror is now in line to become the next big popstar.
At this point in the film, you’d be right to wonder just what this film is trying to tackle. Is it a commentary on how big business can co-opt tragedy for profit? Is it about a machine that manufactures popstars like they’re hula hoops, plastic and disposable? Or is this simply a character study of how one young woman turned her pain and grief into a lifetime in the spotlight? That’s the real problem with Vox Lux – it raises all of these questions with its content and provides no real answers, unfolding as a hollow pop provocation.
Years later, Celeste (Portman) has emerged from years of turmoil to play a sold out show in her hometown of Staten Island. Celeste, who in her younger incarnation had no noticable accent, has grown into a brash, egotistical woman complete with a thick Staten Island accent that borders on cartoonish parody. Before she’s ready to face the press, Celeste has just been informed that a mass shooting has occurred and the perpetrators were captured wearing masks that resemble that of her classic music video. Once again, Corbet’s film is mining tragedy that mirrors all too closely real life events and warps into a little exploitative plot point with no depth or meaning beyond the cheap glossy surface.
Ahead of her show, Celeste is tackling a tense relationship with her daughter Albertine (also distractingly played by Raffey Cassidy), who has mostly been raised by Eleanor (once again played by Stacy Martin – I guess this character doesn’t age). In front of the press, Celeste becomes combative and twists the facts of the day to turn herself into a victim. Yet again, Vox Lux raises some elements that might be interesting if they weren’t just lip service without any depth as you could make a case that Celeste has been trapped in a state of perpetual victimhood since childhood but the giant leap in time undermines this because the character transforms from a shy teenager to an egotistical superstar occurs entirely offscreen.
At one point, Celeste and her manager engage in binge of chemical excess, leaving the pop star barely able to walk as she enters the arena where she’s about to take the stage. This is another dead end, as the popstar is able to quickly sober up and take the stage for the film’s big finale of Celeste’s highly anticipated concert. Corbet’s film concludes with a lengthy presentation of Celeste’s concert which features songs written by current pop sensation Sia, and despite the earlier binge the popstar hits every note and dance step on the stage. It’s nearly impossible to get wrapped up in the film’s eventful climax as it just drags on and on, featuring glittery costumes and flashing lights. Everything has built to this moment and it’s a stunning conclusion of pure anti-climax, complete with a ridiculous bit of narration that seemed custom designed to grate on my nerves.
Sitting through Vox Lux is a tedious experience because it’s often so close to saying something then pulling away before finishing its point. You sit there through these two chapters of Celeste’s life waiting for the film to make a point that is never coming. Even the most inane, saccharine pop song has more to say than Vox Lux.
The life of a popstar unfolds in two chapters in writer-director Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, a hollow pop provocation that wants to provide the illusion that it has something to say without actually articulating any point.