It would be remiss of this reviewer to discuss the psychological drama Vox Lux without commenting on the abhorrent manner which pop-star Celeste is endowed by fame; a by-product of a culture obsessed with celebrity in a system that benefits from the exploitation of trauma.
Fame comes at a cost for Celeste (played by both Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman) who inadvertently becomes a figurehead of grief in the American consciousness which, ultimately, renders her unable to process a traumatic experience from her teenage years that catapulted her into stardom – grief that is expressed via music as a recovery mechanism that is then adopted by the nation as a commemorative anthem.
To discuss the matter which Celeste arrives at fame further would lessen the experience of watching Vox Lux, a film comprising of confronting scenes that deliver an emotional gut-punch that follow her into adulthood. This feeling of angst is prevalent throughout the film with the grainy cinematography reminiscent of films from the ’90s adding profound levels of gloom to the narrative.
Parallels will be made between Portman’s astonishing turn as a survivor of tragedy to that of her Oscar-winning turn in 2010’s Black Swan, but to do so would misrepresent the film’s abstract detest of American culture. Portman’s ability to play to Celeste’s mania, however despicable, finds her impressively juggle the guise of an avant-garde pop-star provocateur with the fragility of a victim struggling with deep-seated agony.
Where Portman delivers so does Cassidy, working doubly as hard to represent the death of innocence in America and also to inhabit many of Portman’s characteristics, which in the second act makes for a smooth transition of Celeste into adulthood. Jude Law, who is the only actor that appears in all three acts as the same character (aside from Willem Dafoe’s exemplary narration), rounds out the superb acting trio in a manager role that is equal parts a protector of Celeste as he is an enabler.
Pop music represents the ultimate middle finger to consumption and is the means which Celeste can sustain a career, despite her perceived lack of talent – a theme that prevails throughout her life as if to define her fame as the result of opportunity as opposed to ability (Portman’s Celeste going as far as to loathe those famous for being provocateurs, feeling as if their rise to celebrity undercuts her tragic experiences). This is carried on throughout a score which ranges from gothic-ethereal to intentionally generic pop songs (written by executive producer Sia) to further undercut Celeste’s musical inability.
Experimental in its approach, Vox Lux is a film that refuses to play up to conventions which is apparent in the film’s conclusion and is likely to cause some divisiveness regardless of it being logical to Celeste’s arc. Writer-director Brady Corbet succeeds in creating a confronting yet unique opera that serves as an exaggerated detailing of how trauma manifests into adulthood, whilst also working to denounce societal norms that result in the suppression of grief.
Dance choreography was done by Benjamin Millepied, husband of Natalie Portman.