Director Brady Corbet plunges into a vat of unprocessed trauma with “Vox Lux,” a commanding character study that merges fame with unspeakable atrocity. Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman play the respective child and adult versions of Celeste, a Staten Island girl who rises to pop stardom under horrific circumstances. She’s a survivor of a mass school shooting, yet isn’t allotted time to grieve. When Celeste debuts an original song at the victims’ memorial service, it goes viral and instantly becomes a national lullaby. She’s then plucked from obscurity into the hands of opportunistic record producers. Corbet posits that even tragedies aren’t off the exploitation table so long as they have a lucrative angle. With extremely dark, topical subject matter as its jumping point, the message is clear: there’s no escaping the lingering carnage of the past.
Entrusted into the care of a sleazy yet zealous music manager (Jude Law), Celeste is whisked off to Stockholm, Sweden for a demo meeting. After that goes better than expected, Celeste’s publicist, Josie (Jennifer Ehle), positions her on a global pop sensation path. The whirlwind journey from discovery to music video shoots to eventually touring the world doesn’t faze our protagonist. Fortunately, Celeste’s newfound celebrity status never allows time to grapple with childhood demons. Stifling the darkness is easier when your calendar is booked year-round.
Always by Celeste’s side is her older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), who suffers guilt for skipping class the day of the massacre. Despite being the more musically talented of the two, Eleanor is forced into an obsequious role. Unappreciative and downright resentful as the years go by, Celeste views her sister as little more than a useful leech. Gone is the closeness and unconditional love that gave Celeste the initial confidence to pursue such an unlikely career.
Martin’s muted and reserved performance effectively underscores the placating necessity of Eleanor. She may come off socially awkward to an outsider, but Eleanor’s silent devotion is a pillar of strength. From raising Celeste’s daughter, Albertine, to making sure Celeste’s alcoholism and drug abuse are publicly manageable, Eleanor sacrificially places her sister’s success above all else. “Vox Lux” doesn’t ask its audience to take pity on Eleanor so much as respect her. After all, family is the first and often last to uphold someone’s dignity.
“Vox Lux” is wonderfully paced thanks to its two-act structure that’s followed by a spectacular grand finale (choreographed by Portman’s husband, Benjamin Millepied). Other than an extended dialogue sequence at a diner that goes on a beat or two longer than necessary, the film is brisk in dispatching its narrative. However, there are moments when the sound gets scratchy, and dialogue is muffled. Thankfully, the sentiments never get lost in translation. Lol Crawley’s cinematography is perfectly suffocating in its closeness, while composer Scott Walker and music supervisor Sia orchestrate some exquisite compositions. The duo manages to capture Celeste’s frenetic energy without diluting her rapturous cyberpunk allure.
The story’s unraveling mirrors the speed at which Celeste is running away from her woes. The world has made her their spokesperson on finding the will to carry on after the tragedy. The only way to take up this mantle is to turn sadness into renegade spunk. Thus, Celeste’s ego inflates tenfold within a twenty-year span. More than an eye-opening exhibition of the tumultuous musician lifestyle, “Vox Lux” fixates on the power of music to temporarily alleviate emotional pain. Particularly in the case of Celeste’s artistry, her songs are meant to be a form of healing via escapism. Her lyrics range from vapid to esoteric, but it’s her hypnotic sound and entrancing stage theatrics that provide catharsis.
Natalie Portman is as convincing a pop star icon as she is a legendary actor. Part of what makes Portman the most daring of performers is her wondrous ability to navigate a scene. Whether it’s opening up to her daughter while simultaneously shielding her from undesirable truths, Portman effortlessly demonstrates the ongoing struggle of defending one’s flaws to a judgmental world. A temperament that vacillates between rage and regret, Portman nevertheless coaxes the humanity from Celeste. Because she and Cassidy share equal screen time, it’s understandable why Portman is getting a “Supporting Actress” Oscar campaign. Should she land in the lineup, it would deservedly be the frontrunner performance in the category.
In sum, it matters very little if “Vox Lux’s” abrupt ending is appropriate to the masses. Both Portman and Corbet emphasize that we are mere patrons to Celeste’s grand show, on and off stage. We are at her mercy, be it tantrum or transformation. The ultimate beauty is beholding Celeste’s unforgettable chaotic journey of self-love and musical philanthropy.