Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for Vox Lux.
Vox Lux ends with a with a colossal spectacle: Pop star Celeste (Natalie Portman) takes the stage to kick off her tour to promote her sixth studio album — one intended to symbolize redemption and rebirth after a period of scandal and mishaps. Through four full numbers (original songs written by real-life pop star Sia), she dances with (choreographed) abandon, her glittery jumpsuit clinging to her. She’s no longer the anxious woman plagued by trauma, controversy, and addiction. She’s an icon.
It’s a big, grand finale to cap off an over-the-top movie. Unfortunately, the sequence is too long, and ultimately empty. Brady Corbet’s film promises great things, and there are kernels of ambitious, fascinating ideas throughout, but they don’t pay off.
Divided into three acts, this self-proclaimed “21st century portrait” begins with heavy-handed narration poached straight from Amélie (without that movie’s fairy tale charm), courtesy of Willem Dafoe. Born in 1986, young Celeste (played by Raffey Cassidy) is 14 when a Columbine-like shooter opens fire in her high school. While trying to talk the shooter down, Celeste suffers a spinal injury that, though not permanently paralyzing, leaves her in constant back pain. Still, she’s one of the lucky ones. It’s a moment that defines her worldview — it’s January 2000 and the new millennium has kicked off on a note of unspeakable violence, with more to come — but also launches her career as a singer. Her performance of a tribute song dedicated to her fallen classmates and homeroom teacher (Maria Dizzia) goes the 2000 equivalent of viral, and earns her a demo and a brash, rude manager (Jude Law, who looks like he’s been sleeping in his clothes for the last decade, yet somehow still manages to be charming.)
There begins Act I, “Genesis,” which tracks Celeste’s evolution from shy, angelic 14-year-old from Staten Island to a manufactured pop professional, mature beyond her years. Beginning with the brutal shooting and ending on 9/11, it’s a period of major firsts, followed quickly by disillusionment for Celeste. Her first music video, based on her nightmares, is closely linked to her first sexual encounter — with an older, pill-popping British rocker — and her first betrayal: the indelible image of her older sister (Jennifer Ehle) and her manager, the two people responsible for her well-being, in bed together.
Fast forward to 2017 (Act II: “Regenesis”), and a new act of violence comes to haunt Celeste (now grown up and played by Portman), on the eve of her album release: Terrorists wearing masks inspired by her music video open fire on a Croatian beach, resulting in 14 casualties.
Things have been bumpy for Celeste in the years since we last saw her. At 31, she’s mother to a teenage daughter, Albertine (also played by Cassidy, this time with blue contacts), has burned bridges with her older sister and pretty much everyone else who isn’t her manager, the only person who can still tolerate her.
The ever excellent Portman gives Celeste a manic, magnetic, somewhat exhausting energy. She’s insufferable, and self-involved, a trainwreck parody of a pop princess at her lowest, reminiscent of Britney Spears circa 2007 or Lindsay Lohan in her DUI years — although her woke comeback tour feels more like a nod to Katy Perry. (A friend I screened the film with noted that Celeste could be the result of Portman’s character from SNL’s “Natalie’s Rap” taking the pop road to stardom.) But she’s also a quintessentially millennial performer, preaching the cynical gospel of influencer-based fame. “It doesn’t matter anymore if you’re Michelangelo or Mickey and Angelo from New Brighton,” she tells Albertine at lunch before getting into an altercation with the diner owner over a selfie. “You gotta have an angle.” Her statements to the press are a similarly empty jumble of words that mean nothing. (One of the film’s best moments involves the most realistic portrayal of a press junket I’ve ever seen on screen.)
As Young Celeste, Cassidy is more subdued. Unlike Portman’s seasoned diva, she’s the soul waiting to be corrupted. In one scene where she’s lying on her side during a night spent with Pill Rocker, she looks like an Old Hollywood ingenue turned vampire victim, her pale neck waiting to be bitten. It’s a strong performance, even as her native British accent belies her distinctly non-Staten Island origins.
The idea of exploring the art of a generation scarred by the constant threat of school shootings and terrorism is an interesting one. But Corbet never does more than scratch the surface, choosing broad, clumsy symbolism in lieu of real analysis. And while the school shooting is one that’s seared into my mind, too many other moments feel like a pretentious film student’s debut. (Rather than running the end credits after the last shot, Corbet chooses to have them scroll in full over an early scene, which would have been cool if he hadn’t already done three or four other artsy things beforehand. It’s too much, all the time.)
What’s more, it’s never clear what message the film is trying to convey. At times, it reads as a criticism of pop music as artifice, and commercial product. That’s directly contradicted by that extended finale which appears to glorify pop in all its beauty and power. The narration, which does the absolute most in terms of elevating Celeste’s story to mythic status, doesn’t do much to clarify things. I might have worked better had the voice been that of a young woman — at least then, we’d get to know her, rather than the version of her filtered through a man’s perspective.
In a way, Vox Lux mirrors its protagonist. The first time I saw the film back in September, at a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was impressed. It felt like art, in the grandest sense of the word. But upon second viewing, the film doesn’t hold up. It’s a beautiful shell, a veneer that crumbles under scrutiny and dissection.