‘Vox Lux’, Brady Corbet’s New Movie Starring Natalie Portman Reviewed
Forget about child abuse and alcoholic or even controlling parents, this is the sign of the times, new pop stars are born out of ultra-violence, and Vox Lux’ star, more precisely, rose to stardom after surviving from a brutal school shooting. This cannot be closer to today’s reality. At the beginning of Lux Vox, Brady Corbet’s new movie, we are told there is nothing very special about Celeste, after all, the 13-year-old is just expressing her trauma through a song she composes with the help of her sister after some horrific event, but the song touches America and the rest is history.
Vox Lux could be branded as the anti ‘A Star Is Born’, this year’s remake of the famous story with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, as there’s nothing conventional in Vox Lux, which grabs you by the guts at the first minute during a very disturbing scene. If both movies describe the ascension of a pop star, Vox Lux seems to excel where A Star is Born fails, it’s not a remake of an old cliché describing the pitfalls of a star child turned pop diva, Celeste is a reflection of our times, the movie is a mirror to our terrifying era with an uneasy depth that will probably not please everyone.
There is a scene in the movie when a journalist asks Celeste if the terrorists are the new pop stars, a question she brushed away angrily with a ‘Who cares?’ The same day, there was a shooting on a beach in Croatia, perpetuated by terrorists who were dressed like the characters of one of her videos. Celeste may reject the idea of such a disturbing connection but Corbet seems to answer ‘yes’ to the journalist’s question.
It’s the second time that Celeste’s art is linked to terrorism – there is even a third one with an allusion to September 11th, when she flies to Los Angeles to shoot her music video – and the parallel mirrors our era, when music, entertainment, horror, and killing have already been tightly intertwined many times. There is no shortage of examples, from the bombing of Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester to the shooting in Las Vegas’ country concert, the carnage during the Eagles of Death Metal’s concert in Paris, or even Marilyn Manson’s stage antics, which were regarded as responsible for a series of school shootings. But there may be a more pernicious side to all this, as the glitter around the eyes of the school shooter may reveal more than a kid confused with his sexuality. After the event, Celeste adopts glitter her whole life, around her eyes, on her face, and around her neck, to mask her shooting injury. There’s something disturbing about this, something that you can easily miss until the Croatian terrorists with the glitter masks are returning the mirror back again. ‘I have more hits than a 30-round AK-47 magazine’ declares Celeste to nail the parallel during a press conference. Isn’t everything a show if they all wear glitter?
The film is divided into acts like a Greek tragedy with biblical references, Genesis and Regenesis, and a voiceover narration from Willem Dafoe as if we were watching a Wes Anderson movie. The most bizarre aspect of the movie is the fact that the young Celeste, played by Raffey Cassidy, has little to do with the older Celeste played by Natalie Portman, it was even difficult to reconcile the responsible teenager she was. with the troubled adult that she becomes: As a kid, she is in charge, a not-swearing, god-believer serious teen, who faces life with courage despite (or because of) the school tragedy. As an adult, she is dysfunctional and moody, a complete mess of a boozed-up pop star, with a tumultuous and scandalous private life. Natalie Portman plays her character with many nuances and facets, unpredictable, like an amalgam of Madonna and Amy Winehouse, wearing leather jackets, her hair high and away from her face, with her eyes always very smoky. She demonstrates an impressive swagger while answering journalists with a hard candy in her mouth (an inspiration directly lift from the documentary ‘Madonna: Truth or Dare’) before storming out of the interview because she doesn’t like the questions, or literally falling on the floor, all drugged-out.
She is a rebellious and explosive-tempered adult, filled with contradictions, always followed by her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) and her long time manager (Jude Law) who oscillates between loyal friend and pimp. She is as unstable, as the present time, and she lives her life very fast, at the image of today’s pace when everything changes so fast. We only follow Celeste adult for one day while we see several years of Celeste as a kid, and this renders this idea even more palpable as if the pace of life had accelerated too fast in 2017. The camera is so shaky and the images so subliminal during certain sequences that it is impossible to follow what’s happening, on purpose. Interestingly, Celeste’s teenager daughter is also played by Raffey Cassidy, and when she watches her mother on stage during a concert at the end of the movie, it is once again a double mirror, with a daughter watching her future self, and a mother watching her younger self, while the giant words PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE lighten up on stage.
Celeste is someone who stands up above the crowd, the same way she stood up in front of the school shooter, trying to talk to him: ‘we are gonna pray’, she tells him before he shoots everyone in the room anyway. She has that same confident connection in front of the crowd during this very long concert scene at the end, she is not necessarily a good singer, but she sings her survivor songs with that rare confidence and that impeccable stereotyped choreography. In the end, I don’t know if Corbet wants to tell us that pop music, stardom, and fame are bad or just a way to survive, I don’t know if he wants to tell us that Celeste made a pact with the devil or gave him the finger, I don’t know if he wants to tell us that entertainment is a high price to pay because we always sacrifice those who entertain us… Celeste shows a large palette of contradictory feelings, but she never seems happy for a second.
The pop songs she sings, composed by Sia especially for the movie, sound like the current crowd-pleaser pop, a blend of bubblegum music, pop anthems and EDM, contrasting with the mournful soundtrack composed by Scott Walker, when Celeste/Lux moves in her grey-blue world, a resilient light among menacing New York buildings, which have never looked so oblique.
The most telling sentence of the movie may come from young Celeste, delivered during a one-night stand with a rocker, despite her religious upbringing. ‘I don’t want people to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.’ It looks like her own definition of pop music, but it is also the antithesis of the movie, pop music may be the feeling-good escape to forget about brutal reality, but it is impossible to feel good after watching Vox Lux, and especially impossible not to think very hard.