The anti-Star is Born. The sardonic yang. The thing that happened in 2018. Reading some pull-quotes, you’d imagine a trendy masterpiece. A mess of empty camp. A puzzling leaked demo. A cynical riddle. Reading other pull-quotes, you’d imagine a failure of epic pretension, the afterbirth of many ideas not coalescing. The truth, as always, lays somewhere in between and all over the place. New kid on the block of provocateurs is Brady Corbet, a clearly talented filmmaker with ambition to spare yet still finding his voice. Starring Raffey Cassidy and Jude Law, and featuring a phenomenal Natalie Portman in its second half, his Vox Lux is a cautionary tale of fame’s undoing at a micro and macro level. There’d be nothing new to say in that regard were it not for Corbet’s attempt to thread the needle between celebrity culture and our current moment of careless nihilism, exhibited by school shootings, terrorism, a voracious media, and our collective shrug at all of them bombarding us at once.
Opening in 1999, at the “dawn of the new millennium” as narrator Willem Dafoe calls it with distinct foreboding, a horrific school shooting in the vein of Columbine kick-starts the career of future pop star Celeste. As played by Cassidy at twelve and thirteen, she’s a frail, vulnerable girl with a flicker of something more. Is it talent, as seen in cute home videos of childhood karaoke? Is it greediness, as seen in her appetite for attention, even at a candlelight vigil? Is it malignant narcissism, as seen in her oddly hollow reactions to the shooting? Corbet posits all of the above, both in developing her character and developing many themes. Vox Lux gets an A for effort, the specific but sprawling narrative exceeding his grasp while still encouraging the audience to think, feel, and ponder the merits of modern American culture. The film isn’t cynical so much as it’s commenting on our cynicism and malaise, our unease in the face of what feels like, what could be an encroaching doom for us all. When the news is piled high with violence and vacuous gossip, how else to feel? Tracking Celeste from teenager in 2001 to thirty-something teetering on the brink in 2017, Corbet’s film is a classical rise-and-fall melodrama struggling to break free of its modern shackles, and sometimes intentionally so. Celeste is a genuine article and somewhat earnest individual at the beginning, crying out for people to take her seriously as a woman and pop star. Unfortunately, she’s living in a time when earnestness and honesty are neglected or suspected of treachery, the result of real-life gun violence, bombings, and Bill Cosbys gone bad inundating us on the reg.
Innocent and open little Celeste becomes CELESTE, pop star diva looking for career rehabilitation on the heels of a drunk driving accident and a myriad of other typical celeb troubles. Her subtle New York curl has become a thick Long Island yak, her clothing an eternal costume shielding her from the outside world of paparazzi and fan harassing. Encouraged, for good and bad, by her long-time manager (Law) and publicist (Jennifer Ehle), she’s a walking train-wreck ordering wine at a deli and crackle-pop candy for an interview, and Portman is here for all of it hook, line, and zinger. She chews scenery like a Scorsese prick, getting a nasty, four-letter-filled monologue and some method actor opportunities like she were a male movie star. Ladies don’t get roles like this one very often, the ability to look raw and unfiltered and even unlikable. This actress finishes the year the same way she started it, leading an uncompromising vision of female authority at the dawn of some strange form of apocalyptic milieu. As in Annihilation, Portman is playing a woman beset by tragedy. She’s the product of a soul broken by a lack of one in everything around her, save daughter and sister (Stacy Martin). The latter is a case of true sisterhood and friendship soured by the lack of trust that accompanies fame, and the former an atypical mother-daughter bond that gets by on the fumes of celebrity charisma. Celeste cares for them both, but she’s wrung herself dry to the point of needing the tours, commercials, and tawdry interviews to keep the money train moving for everyone on board. She has no time for personal time, only whatever makes her enough dime to stay on top, wherever that is. In that regard it’s easy for her in the 21st century, with expertise no more and culture so low. Standards need not apply. Michelangelo is dead.
It’d be easy to mistake my wordy musings on society, culture, and philosophy as a ringing endorsement for the film, bar nothing. And while the content is palpable, compelling, and occasionally macabre in new and interesting ways, the execution is inconsistent on Brady’s part. The opening stanza of school-grade bloodshed and speeding dollies to the tune of police sirens and a funereal chorus is chilling stuff, as if announcing the death of America itself. However, it is soon followed by the pallid if necessary trappings of that early rise of a word of mouth star. Some of it is captivating, like the ominous rapture of adulthood as depicted by a dream of hers in a shadowy tunnel. Some of it is curious, like Corbet’s choice of what to distill from what was clearly an even larger canvass at one point. In between the chilling opening and Portman’s third-act electricity, there will be more blood, and there will be twiddling thumbs too. Though flawed, all of Vox Lux is fascinating as a snapshot of our turbulent era.
P.S. Vox Lux is the name of her new album, and I can’t decide if the songs are unintentionally good or intentionally bad. Pop music is confusing that way.