Vox Lux

17 Years of Fame Vacuum

         
 

07 March 2019| Comments Off on Vox Lux     by Sean Chavel

 

There’s a riveting dread that’s laced throughout the picture, as we fear that even the victim is heading somewhere into a morally lost descent that is a no good place. Vox Lux opens with the kind of ripped from the headlines horror that we want to turn our eyes away from – a school shooting. How can a film use that as a plot hanger and possibly rebound from it and not complete repulse us? Miraculously, writer-director Brady Corbet (who has acted in the past for Olivier Assayas and Michael Haneke) draws us in deeper and deeper. He boldly calls his own film a twenty-first century portrait. He is not off. Celeste (first acted by Raffey Cassidy, then Natalie Portman in a 16-year jump) from that shooting is a sole survivor with a bullet lodged in her spine, depending on pain meds for life. Her fame as a pop singer stems entirely from the tragedy, and years later she is a celebrity of perhaps vacuous lyrics… or maybe there’s some hidden meaning in her songs after all. But nothing you’d want to put faith in.

Raffey Cassidy does an excellent job running the film as an uncertain young Celeste. But the payoffs are in the second hour of “Vox Lux.” Natalie Portman is radically different here – sure she can do all the stunts and physically gyrate on the concert floor, as limber as the ballet she did for “Black Swan.” But her Celeste is irritable and vain, manic and bombastic. We don’t watch for a character arc to see a miraculous transformation for the better, instead, we study a damaged person and wonder what went wrong. The cinematography helps, it is brilliant. It has a black vaporous feel permeated through it, it has a goth tinge to it, it has colors subtly drained out. Portman looks like she would be pallid without makeup. But what’s going on with the inside of her is what troubles us.

Another deadly shooting in another place in the world happens in 2017. The shooters are shown having worn “Hologram” masks which are inspired by Celeste’s past pop act. Celeste was already underway to do a press conference for her new resurgence tour – though she knocks words like “resurgence” and “comeback” because she declares she never stopped making music, not even during interim scandals – and her words in deciphering the terrorism before the press are not only unwise but are teetering on puerile, exemplified when narrator Willem Dafoe sums up, “She tangentially exclaimed, I got more number-one hits than an AK-47’s standard 30-round magazine.”

Many of the key interpretations occur from Dafoe’s cogent narration which aptly decodes what’s going on in the tortured thought process of Celeste. Especially Dafoe’s narration at the end extracts some answers, importantly how he tells us why Celeste sold out. He also implies of a massive nervous breakdown that she has that happens that were to happen following the end credits.

“Vox Lux” has many more details and peculiarities in its side personalities that vex us. It’s for many long minutes odd to have Jude Law as this cold as ice manager of Celeste. He takes no joy in what he does. He makes money, then more money for making Celeste a bigger star, but finds no elation from any of it. It starts as a clichéd performance, really, but he’s so obstinate in his ways of conducting life and business with a black heart that he becomes fascinating. He has a transfixing kind of hold over Celeste and her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin, from “Nymphomaniac”), and he oddly seems to have been in the picture for over seventeen years. I asked at one point: Doesn’t Celeste want to fire him and hire another manager? Law has debauched sex and baits various women with drugs. The women just let him. He is all about the bad and dark talisman stuff that you have heard about the worst fiends in the music industry. He offers no sage advice on how Celeste should handle the press, but rather, he just tells her that she has to be smart enough on her own to handle them. At the end, you wonder whether if Corbet intends to turn Law into a oversized metaphor or if he is simply a black void taken at face value. Perhaps it is laid out ambiguously so Corbet can keep it open that it can be both.

I’m not sure Celeste can handle anything on her own. Her young daughter is beginning to have reckless sex and keeping secrets away from her celebrity mom, but she seems more confidently put together. Celeste seems to have many worst moments of the day where she seems to be in shambles.

Corbet’s message is hidden, or he asks us to come up with the message to this all. I say, maybe the film is saying it is unfair to ask a celebrity to heroically interpret terrible tragedies for us. They are not prophets. They are not oracles. I believe Celeste says many wrong things before we even get to the Finale. But saying the wrong thing does not, nor should not let her off the hook. Yet you also have sympathy for this terrible star, because she’s living a nightmare marathon of hotels, paparazzi, alcohol consumption and concert stages that she cannot jump off of this loop.

“Vox Lux” takes to a very dark and disturbing place that will occupy some mental space for a long while after, but it’s such a provocative odyssey that you want to spend hours picking it apart and coming to an understanding with it.

UPDATE: I have upgraded it from 3.5 stars to 4 stars because days later I have been obsessed, if not haunted, by the film. I have a natural instinct to not grade films too high that are loaded with unsavory subject matter. Corbet’s film is loaded with disturbing content, and doesn’t conventionally deal with it. By not having his characters satisfyingly answer for it, he is saying this is a portrait of our times. Terrible things happen in our world and then we ignore it, or deflect it. I can’t stop thinking about the film.

110 Minutes. Rated R.

DRAMA / MOODY CHARACTER STUDY / LATE NIGHT DISGUST AT THE WORLD

Film Cousins: “Phantom of the Paradise” (1974); “Elephant” (2003); “Black Swan” (2010); “Amy” (2015).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of flickminute.com, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.

 

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