Vox Lux is the second directorial feature from actor and filmmaker Brady Corbet. An imagined biography of a fictional pop star, the film is ambitious in its structure but only occasionally flickers into life.
The very beginning of Vox Lux shows so much promise that it will have you poised for something truly special. By the time Scott Walker’s magnificent score strikes up across the opening credits, an atmosphere of excitement and dread has been conjured which is almost a work of art itself. Over the course of the hundred or so minutes which follow, that promise slowly dissipates, but there is something so curious about the entire production that it does, at least, hold your attention until the final frame.
Its story is that of two teenage sisters, Ellie (Stacy Martin) and Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), who are thrust into the limelight after surviving a national tragedy. Celeste sees the incident as an opportunity to showcase their musical talent and the first part of the film deals with their entrée into the music industry’s pop machinery. A sudden leap in the timeline lands us eighteen years on when Celeste (played as an adult by Natalie Portman) has become an all-conquering star in the mould of Lady Gaga and succumbed to her own worst instincts. She drinks to excess, indulges her every childish whim and lashes out at everyone around her, including her own teenage daughter (also played by Raffey Cassidy). She throws tantrums, abuses the people who try to help her and then goes out to perform, soaking up the applause and revelling in the attention.
It may be that the film is intended as a critique of celebrity and the way that audiences unknowingly make monsters out of their idolised stars. However, the chopped-up narrative makes it hard to fully join-the-dots with respect to Celeste’s personality or motivations. It’s clear that, as a teenager, she is more self-possessed and mature than she is in her thirties, but without seeing the intervening years, the audience is left to draw their own conclusions. Portman does not convince as an abusive alcoholic star, struggling throughout with a broad New York accent that proves grating, and the choice to cast Raffey Cassidy as both young Celeste and as her daughter is an interesting one, but quite distracting.
Thematically, there seems to be some continuity from Corbet’s previous film, The Childhood of a Leader, also co-written with his partner Mona Fastvold. Both films examine the rise of someone who will go on to dominate the world and they invite the viewer to wonder what it is about their subjects that makes them so desirous of power and fame. But whilst The Childhood of a Leader was largely convincing in its psychological realism, Celeste comes across as a flat caricature: both as a determined young woman and a monstrous fame-addled adult. Occasional pieces of narration (provided by Willem Dafoe) are there to fill in the gaps, but the narrator’s script is very overwrought in those sequences and it only leads to more infuriatingly unanswered questions.
Vox Lux seems to be enamoured with pop music in a straight-forward sort of way (all of Celeste’s songs were penned by the chart-topping SIA, for instance), but it never makes much of a case for pop as a genuine art form. The recurring inclusion of terrorism as a theme within the film makes you wonder if Corbet isn’t trying to make a point about populism as well as pop, but if so, it just feels like another half-sketched idea, the end result of a screenplay which bites off a little more than it can chew.