Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), in the midst of tragedy, unites the country with her voice and is propelled to international stardom. 18 years later, after the spotlight faded, she is making a comeback, again in the midst of tragedy. But time has taken its toll on Celeste’s (Natalie Portman) spirit in “Vox Lux.”
As I watched writer-director Brady Corbet’s sophomore feature film, I felt I was seeing two films, not one. The story opens with a school shooting that depicts Celeste’s terror of facing death and, later, her surviving to become an international catharsis to pain.
After she recovers from her wound – the bullet is still lodged near her spine – Celeste and her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) attend a candlelight vigil for the victims. When the attendees are asked to speak, Celeste is the first to stand up. She sings a song, written by Ellie, about the shooting, and her message of healing goes viral and she becomes an international star under the guidance of her manager (Jude Law).
Flash forward 18 years and Celeste is trying to fix her fractured life and make a comeback with a new album and concert gig. But, this is not the Celeste we saw nearly two decades ago. Now, she has addiction problems, a massive ego – and a teenaged daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy). What follows is the mad-dash days and hours leading up to her return to the stage and its hope of rejuvenated stardom.
As I think about “Vox Lux” and its two films in one, I liked best the first one about young Celeste. I wanted her story to continue over the in between years, so the jump forward to older Celeste felt too abrupt. Part of the problem I had with the jump in time is the new Celeste is not in any way like the young Celeste. I understand that loss of innocence changes a person but the contrast did not make sense to me, probably why “Vox Lux” feels like two movies with two different characters. The finale, though, is spectacular. I give it a B-.
In 1999, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) was a casualty of a school shooting who wrote a song to memorialize her slain classmates. Picked up by the news media, 'Wrapped Up' became a hit and Celeste got a manager (Jude Law) and a career as a pop star. But after a beachside 2017 terrorist attack is carried out by perpetrators wearing masks from her video for 'Hologram,' Celeste (Natalie Portman), still in the doghouse for a scandalous accident which caused injury, is defiantly embarking on a return touring with her latest, "Vox Lux."
Writer/director Brady Corbet made his filmmaking debut reflecting on how past events shaped future ones with "The Childhood of a Leader." Returning to that theme, again focused on a child's historical molding, Corbet posits how surviving a terrorist incident shapes its victim while, in turn, how what that victim becomes sparks further incidents. "Vox Lux" is an Ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail.
The film is chaptered into four sections, all introduced with deadpan foreboding by Willem Dafoe. After announcing Celeste's birth in 1986 to parents 'on the other side of Reaganomics' over cowgirl dress up home video, Prelude, 1999, offers its own miniature Columbine as 'Colin Active' announces himself to a terrified schoolroom. The Celeste we see here is compassionate, trying to talk down the shooter and receiving a bullet to the neck for her troubles.
Act I, Genesis 2000-2001 takes us through Celeste's transformation from schoolgirl with a spinal injury creating on an electronic keyboard during her hospital recovery through pop star in the making with in store appearances and a trip to Stockholm where her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) introduces her to nightlife and her manager grows disillusioned with their 'little girl act.' The demise of Celeste's innocence is completed when she tells her sister they must call their parents because 'a plane crashed into a building in New York.' Smash cut to the 'Fire and Smoke' video.
Act II, Regenesis details how events have pushed the two formerly close sisters to opposite extremes, Celeste's behavior toward the supportive Ellie antagonistic. Raffey Cassidy gives way to Natalie Portman's adult Celeste for the final act, assuming the role of her daughter Albertine, who is close to her aunt but has a volatile relationship with her mother. The transition is grating, the compelling Cassidy giving way to an abrasive Portman, one curdled by celebrity, her accent coarser, her persona more fragile despite outward appearances, the Ouroboros personified. Working with her publicist (Jennifer Ehle) to tackle the media, Celeste digs herself a deeper hole, then attempts to elicit sympathy with her excuses during a one-on-one with a journalist willing to give her the benefit of the doubt (Christopher Abbott). Celeste's behavior may be horrible, but she succeeds in making amends with her daughter, then extends an olive branch to Ellie, still there to absorb her sister's pre-show breakdown when all her manager did was get falling down drunk with her. The mini concert which ends the film is a revelation, Portman's singing and dancing (to the film's original Sia songs) that of a full fledged pop star, Madonna meets Lady Gaga.
"Vox Lux" is an odd movie, a fable which never fully coheres. Corbet wants nothing less than to chart the decline of American society and its violent global impact, yet his film's connective tissue both over and understates his case. It is a hugely ambitious film with a tenuous through line, despite the metal neck collar that symbolizes Celeste.
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