1 Hr., 52 Mins.
Vox Lux December 29, 2018
ox Lux (2018) is the second awards-baiting movie about pop stardom of the year — the other being a widely adored reiteration of A Star is Born — and is the lesser of the two. A Star is Born, as flawed as it is, works for a handful of pinpointable reasons. Its heroine, a singer who goes from performing at half-empty gay bars to guesting on Saturday Night Live, makes for a convincing pop star, even though her
character arc eventually requires her to be one we’re supposed to dub a “sellout.” Bradley Cooper, its co-writer and director, constructs a stable narrative. Peripheral ideas or subtly embedded themes are around, and are certainly up for discussion, but never do they harmfully distract us from the main, tragic story. The music was reliably compelling, too: The songs sounded like cuts that could chart, thus adding a layer of credence to the characters.
Vox Lux, in contrast, is a bungled attempt at a thematically similar tale. Intriguingly, its overriding failures are marked reversals of what made A Star is Born effective. Vox Lux’s leading character similarly shoots from anonymous, lower-class life to pop superstardom in an inconceivably quick amount of time. But the actress playing her when she is in the throes of apparently being the Madonna of her generation — a wild-eyed Natalie Portman — is among the least credible examples of an actor playing a musician I’ve ever seen. The storyline, as written and directed by Brady Corbet, is thinly provocative. Almost all the songs on the soundtrack were penned by the Australian singing-songwriting savant Sia, but her contributions here are crack to the point of being robotic.
Vox Lux comprises two chapters. The first, called “Genesis,” begins in 1999, when the main character, the deferential Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), is “13 going on 14.” The second, set in 2017, is called “Re-Genesis,” and finds Celeste, now 31, disillusioned, a beloved pop star, and played by Portman as a woman on the cusp of a crisis. We discover that Celeste’s ascent began during the formative years of act one, and was borne of tragedy.
Shortly into the film, Celeste’s school, in a grossly graphic nod to Columbine (and comparable recent incidents), is embroiled in a mass shooting, during which she is critically injured. (At one point during the ordeal, she offers to pray with the antagonist until the police arrive, in a failed attempt to calm him down.) At the group memorial service weeks later, Celeste, with the help of her older sister, Ellie (Stacy Martin), sings a piece she co-wrote in the hospital to the crowd. She clarifies that she couldn’t put the grief she was feeling into words. The song unexpectedly gains traction: “It was not her grief,” says the narrator (Willem Dafoe) of the nation. “But theirs.” Soon, Celeste is whisked away by a record company, who will mold her into an alt-Britney of sorts. The section is bookended by 9/11, when Celeste is on the brink of her true artistic parturition.
When the film jumps ahead, Celeste is as much a titanic musical force as she is a notorious tabloid figure. She is six albums in, and all were blockbusters; she exclusively plays stadium shows. But she is also infamous for her shameless, hedonistic behavior. Worst of all was a 2011 incident where she hit a man with her car, bowled racial insults at him, but, afterward, used Nicki Minaj-perfected effrontery to defend herself. (I.e. calling herself the victim and casting aside consequences as facets of a teardown-obsessed public trying to mess with her.) The reason for the time-jump, it is assumed, has to do with the fact that there was recently a mass shooting at a Central European beach, and that the assailants were wearing jewel-encrusted masks Celeste popularized in a music video. In one life, she is at the heart of a tragedy. In another, she indirectly plays a part in one.
What is Vox Lux really about? Sometimes it's about pop stardom and its drudgeries. Sometimes it's about the tolls of gun violence. Cohesion needn't matter, though, because the subjects are neither thoroughly nor movingly prodded at. By only analyzing Celeste’s rise and the fall and not the intervening years, it is as if, even though Celeste’s professional liftoff is the bedrock on which everything is built, Corbet is fascinated with Celeste in the same way a tabloid magazine might be. Her inner life is octaves less important than outward drama. He is interested in her as a talking point or a symbol, not a person grappling with trauma and self-destructive tendencies.
The presence of mass shootings is ill-conceived, and to show two separate incidents in graphic, nearly first-person style is abhorrent. Celeste’s ability to build a career on a tragedy is likely Corbet’s way of mirroring the inarguable way the nation tends to feed on another person’s misfortune as if it were a movie-theater refreshment, and how easy it can be to get immediately lost in musical spectacle and glittery moments after hearing of something devastating. But the plot point is too overt and vaguely schadenfreudic to feel like anything other than flubbed stabs at provocation. Corbet does not offer any sound reasons as to why he should depict the violence so explicitly, or why the globe so quickly accepts Celeste's transition into a musical career.
In order to make a decisive movie about pop stardom, the music has to be good. Corbet knew this going into production. Earlier this month, he told Vulture that “I chose Sia as a partner on the film because I knew that the film wouldn’t be complex or convincing if the songs were bad." The twist, though, is that the songs are eminently crummy. In terms of the first act, anyway, Sia makes no sense as an artistic partner: the song that makes Celeste famous, released in 1999, sounds as if it were a heartbreaker from 2014. You would think that Corbet, who devises a plot point out of Celeste going to Sweden to make her debut album, would be wary of this: the Swedish producer Max Martin, after all, practically defined pop in the late-1990s and most of the aughts. So why not enlist him, or at least an acoylte?
A pessimist could argue that plenty of pop music is substandard. But the songs in Vox Lux are worse than whatever examples could be invoked. They’re factory-made, and letting Cassidy and Portman sing them amplifies their inferiority: their deliveries are ineffectual. It is impossible to believe that Celeste would be an epochal talent and not a flavor of the month. True, some of this deficiency is addressed early on: Before the film’s action begins, we watch a home video of Celeste singing in front of her family, and the narrator tells us that, even without a great voice, she had obvious star quality. But pop stars agreed to not have superlative voices can still be irresistible.
In A Bigger Splash, Luca Guadagnino's erotic drama from 2016, the heroine, played by Tilda Swinton, is a rock star, intimated to be so big that the world considers her a David Bowie redux. Guadagnino never shows Swinton singing — a wise choice given that, no matter how excellent a song is, and no matter how meticulous an actor is, it is unfeasible to help an audience conclude that an actor pretending to be a musician for a single movie has defined a decade in a way that an actual musician could. Unless the character is, as was in the case in A Star is Born, played by a real-life musician. Why didn't Corbet more seriously consider these approaches?
With the exception of Portman, the actors are surprisingly sturdy. (I invoke surprise because of the film’s comprehensive disorder.) Cassidy, playing both a young Celeste and the latter’s neglected daughter, Albertine, in “Re-Genesis,” is logical and heartrending first as a girl who experiences too much too soon, then as a teen who only knows chaos. Martin, portraying a bad influence of an older sister during the first act, then a sibling/manager feeling guilty for how much she has added to her sister’s destruction, is a pitiful force. Jude Law and Jennifer Ehle are lucid as greedy label bigwigs who have only thought of Celeste in terms of numbers and images for almost 20 years.
It would be unreasonable to say that Portman is bad in Vox Lux. Clearly, her broad-stroked, labored performance is to be blamed on Corbet’s shambolic vision. Still, there are glints of brilliance here and there. Though the movie’s finale, which encompasses a 15-minute-long stadium performance, is defined by terrible music made worse by subordinate sound design, in her dancing and stage-prancing does Portman seamlessly embody the part. Clad in a disco-ball-looking, snug jumpsuit, with her hair caked in temporary grey, we’d believe she was an icon if we didn’t know this was Natalie Portman, and if the sound were turned off. In a scene covering a press conference, the actress capably evokes disastrous, Kanye Westian PR.
But everywhere else, Portman is reminiscent of a cartoon, and one who isn’t drawn with necessary humor. Her vocal fry is stained with a flavorful, exaggerated Long Island accent — something that was mostly undetectable in Cassidy’s delivery in act one — and she flails her body and hands as if she were playing the comic relief in a going-south, foredoomed high-school stage play she’s trying to save via bluster. Portman cannot so much breathe or blink without us being ultra-cognizant that we’re watching A Performance. We can imagine her asking Corbet if she is going too far, with Corbet enthusiastically, and misguidedly, asking her to go further.
Portman is a brilliant actress — in no doubt do movies like the visceral Black Swan (2010) and the captivating Jackie (2016) irreversibly prove this. Regrettably, Vox Lux is so misjudged that it nearly cajoles us into thinking that she’s as poor as the movie in which she's starring. This isn’t the case: the onus is on Corbet. But I worry that the film, which I infer will become a linchpin of “failed Oscar movie” lists, will hurt the public’s perception of Portman as one of her generation’s finest actresses. The film is a misstep, and, unfortunately, her performance is one, too. D