Vox Lux is a doom-laden, dark-humored pop-culture allegory that feels like what would happen if Charlie Kaufman and Richard Kelly took their own crack at A Star is Born.
Directed and co-written by Brady Corbet — best remembered by this writer as the guy who played doofus son to one of Jack Bauer’s many lady-friends on 24 — the film is a vivid, wicked vesper about the viral earworms that tune people into either terrorism or the Top 40, an entwinement of fundamentalism and fun times.
It’s told from the perspective of Celeste, a pop vocalist so eager to cast off the fragile foreword of her career that she fashions herself — with a visual Frankensteining of her aesthetic — into a deity revived over and over again. By the time we catch up with her adult form — embodied by Natalie Portman in yet another smart, assured performance that dazzles us with its dynamic shift from her last smart, assured performance — we see hardly a trace of the girl we first met. That is, of course, on purpose and par for the course of continual pop-culture reinvention.
When we first meet Celeste — itself an easy riff on the radio-friendly brevity and religious connotations of Madonna) — she’s just a face in the crowd of a school band rehearsal. After Celeste is one of few to survive an unexpected tragedy — albeit with a permanent neck scar and nagging spinal injury — she becomes the face of a nation fractured by violence and a youthful songbird with an easily marketed (or exploited) story to share.
Along for the whirlwind ride is a fellow survivor — Celeste’s sister Ellie (Stacey Martin), the Bernie to Celeste’s Elton as it were who provides Celeste’s musical backbone. “At least she wrote her own lyrics. They couldn’t take that from her,” purrs Willem Dafoe of Celeste in generously ladled deadpan narration that sounds like a Twitter feed read aloud by an omniscient being. Dafoe is as adept at delivering killer jokes about Swedish pop as it is stentorian soliloquies about the path of fate along which Celeste and Ellie walk. Jude Law plays Celeste and Ellie’s manager, whose initial better angels yield to his own demons in due time.
In youth, Celeste is played by Raffey Cassidy, a young actress who as strongly embodies a blank canvas — that will be covered in stabs of color again and again — as Portman does the tsunami of tough talk that Celeste represents in adult form. Midway through the film, a 16-year time-shift brings with it a big, bold, paradigm-pounding performance from Portman that is certain to take its lumps solely for the virtue of how far she puts herself out there for someone so off-putting.
Celeste’s aesthetic is a combination of Lady Gaga’s moves and Janelle Monáe’s style, all spun from a sort of pure provenance a la Charlotte Church. Portman’s angular voice and New York accent — an affectation that, like so much of the 17 unseen years, has just absorbed itself into her identity — cuts through with a severity equal to the sidewalls and swoops in her styled hair. Portman’s physical countenance is just right for someone who would walk with the sort of injury she suffered in childhood, and her dance moves and vocal performances (both clearly Portman) are persuasively sinewy or slick while intended to illustrate that Celeste has lost more than a step to these youthful songs. (If the songs seem slicker than your average, that’s because they’re co-written by real-life avant-garde pop artist Sia.)
We pick back up with Celeste hours away from her homecoming concert to kick off her Vox Lux tour — and a fresh act of violence more overtly invoking her brand with which she must reckon. In one scene when Celeste walks New York’s streets, the paparazzi line up like paramilitaries, their flashbulbs flickering like muzzle flashes.
It’s a nifty image, but also indicative of a certain lack of sophistication in Vox Lux’s investigation into pop music as an endless cycle of inspiration found and lost, invocation and impulse, refrains and respawns. The notion that we love a slow-motion sacrifice as much as we do a danceable three-minute ditty has been done before, although perhaps not with such gleefully perverse strangeness.
Vox Lux also doesn’t so much end as it ceases and gains nothing from the repetition of a second scene of shocking violence. When translated, the title could mean either “the voice of light” or “light voice.” Either reading works here for a movie that’s not that deep, but that’s still got some damn snappy satirical choreography.