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. . .
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