(This film review of “Vox Lux” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 February 2019.)
Directed and written by Brady Corbet; starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle and Raffey Cassidy, with narration by Willem Dafoe
“Vox Lux” is a new drama featuring everyone’s favourite Israeli-American actress, Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”, “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, “Jackie”), as Celeste Montgomery, a young woman who survives a violent tragedy with her sister (French actress Stacy Martin, star of “Nymphomaniac”) and turns it into a hit song that launches their singing careers.
Portman arrives in the film half-way through; her younger self (Raffey Cassidy) is the one (careful: plot spoilers ahead) who faces the darkened eyes of a Columbine-style school shooter in her Staten Island high school, offering to be a hostage if he lets everyone go. It doesn’t work: Celeste is shot anyway, but she survives, following which she attends months of physical therapy.
With the help of her younger sister, Celeste chances on music as a form of therapy, and ends up writing a hit song about her experience, coached by a gruff manager (Jude Law) and guided by a music publicist (Jennifer Ehle). Fast forward 15 years. Celeste, now 31, is a superstar singer, a drug and alcohol abuser, and an imperious, self-centred and powerful presence, part Lady Gaga, part Madonna. She also has a teenage daughter (with no partner on the scene) named Albertine, played by Raffey Cassidy (who is also the younger Celeste). A neat trick.
“Vox Lux” is that kind of movie, striving to keep the audience off-balance. Despite the film’s nasty subject matter, it is presented with a strong ironical (and occasionally humorous) tone, partly due to a calm “voice from on high” narration by an unmistakeable Willem Dafoe. There’s something else, possibly the sound design or an at times menacing musical score by iconic composer Scott Walker (The Walker Brothers). Or perhaps it’s the edginess that most characters show on screen, that makes you think something terrible is always about to happen. Some pretty bad things take place – this is a physically and emotionally violent film, truly earning its MA15+ rating – although events never feel quite as emotionally devastating as foreshadowed. The director, Brady Corbet, may be playing with us here, distancing us from the emotions of his lead character. Or not. The result is disconcerting, intentionally so. This is clever film-making, torn from tomorrow’s news. It may not be easy to watch, but the result commands our attention.
Portman’s performance is enthralling, a haunting darker sister to Lady Gaga in “A Star is Born”. Like Lady Gaga, she sings her own songs. What she loses in melody, she makes up in aggressiveness.
Despite strong early Oscar buzz, Portman was shut out of both Oscars and Golden Globe nominations. According to The Guardian, last year – 2018 – was the worst on record for gun violence in American schools, with 94, beating the previous record (set in 2006) of 59. Are the film’s themes, so contemporary in the era of Sandy Hook and Parkland, just too strong for major awards?
The final half of the film is a count down to a major concert by Celeste, and it is shattered by a distant tragedy with uncomfortable resonance to Celeste’s own brand. Celebrity and terrorism are inextricably linked in America, “Vox Lux” seems to be telling us.