Directing his second feature film, Brady Corbet brings us Vox Lux (subtitled A Twenty-First Century Portrait), a tale of a popstar’s rise to fame in two parts. Starting in 1999, a young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives a school shooting. Trying to make sense of the tragedy, Celeste and her sister, Ellie (Stacy Martin) compose and perform a song about their experience. Before they know it, Celeste is being catapulted to stardom. Fast forwarding to 2017, Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) is a mother to a teenage daughter of her own, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy), and is struggling to navigate a career troubled by past scandals. Meanwhile an act of terrorism demands her attention as she prepares for one of her biggest performances yet.
Vox Lux definitely offers an interesting take on the “rise to fame” narrative; although I’ve not seen it, I’d be curious to see how to compares to Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born which, from what I’ve heard, also tackles this. Unlike many of its narrative predecessors, Vox Lux attempts to look at how creativity can be swallowed up by the corporate, pop music machine. With Vox Lux, Brady Corbet shows us how a young Celeste, still recovering physically, mentally and emotionally from the trauma of the film’s tragic (and painfully relevant) opening, is thrust into a world so far removed from her own. At an age where she should still be deciding what she might like to do with her life, she unwittingly signs her life away, offering herself to a system that will only care about her, so long as she keeps the money coming in and the good times rolling.
And this is what we see, over the course of the film. Once the wheels are in motion, Celeste is simply along for the ride, being whisked around the world and back again, as her new manager (Jude Law) guides her through this strange, yet inviting world. Interestingly though, for Celeste, this environment doesn’t seem as manipulative or exploitative as we might initially think, instead offering her an escape from her trauma, both literally and figuratively, through her music. Her sister, thinking she’s experienced enough for her age, begins to take her to clubs, while her manager tries, as best he can, to keep her on the straight and narrow. Before we know it, we’re brought into the future, our recent present, in which gun violence remains a problem (happening in Europe this time) and Celeste is now a larger-than-life celebrity. Rather than seeing her from the outside though, we are brought behind the curtain, following Celeste in the afternoon as she prepares for the first show of her new tour. Now, Elli looks after Celeste’s teenage daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy), while the Manager has shifted into a supportive, if enabling figure in Celeste’s life.
Both Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman bring something different to the role of Celeste. While there is a definite through-line between the two performances, Raffey Cassidy is more reserved than Portman’s take. We follow Cassidy’s take as she learns to navigate both her trauma, and the music world. By contrast, Portman is the version of Celeste that has lived the high life; the fame, the fortune, the scandals, and all the press and attention that comes with it. Portman’s Celeste is aware of her position, unafraid to express her opinion, and erratic at best. However, it becomes clear that substance abuse has taken its toll over the years, which our voiceover narrator (Willem Defoe) bluntly clarifies for us, wherever necessary. Defoe’s narration gives the audience insight into both versions of Celeste that we might not get otherwise. Stacy Martin and Jude Law are solid in their roles as Celeste’s sister and manager, respectively. Martin is supportive throughout the film, definitely put-upon in the present day, and thankfully, able to stand her ground against her egotistical sister. Law, on the other hand, is gruff and to the point, offering another angle of support for Celeste. Between the two characters, we get an understanding of how Celeste has survived in this industry as long as she has, and to me, their performances become more interesting, when comparing their respective relationships with Celeste before and after the jump forward in time.
Unfortunately, my main complaint about the characters is less to do with the actors’ performances (all of whom did a great job), and more to do with a specific casting choice. As I said before, Raffey Cassidy plays both a young Celeste and Celeste’s daughter, Albertine. This completely baffled me at first, and if I’m being honest, I had to do some quick googling for the film’s cast to figure out what was going on. This change was especially confusing when Celeste (Portman) is shown with her sister, Ellie (who doesn’t seem to have changed at all between past and present), and her daughter (Cassidy). Frustratingly, while Cassidy is fine playing Celeste’s daughter, her casting in this additional role didn’t seem entirely necessary, and I can only see it being a distraction from the story, particularly when audiences are trying to adjust to the jump forward in time. While this might not be an issue for everyone (particularly if you’re aware of it going in), I can see it being a detriment to what is otherwise a very solid film.
The film’s cinematography is effectively handled by DP Lol Crawley, providing intimacy and distance in equal measure. The switch to handheld camera during the film’s violent opening created this interesting sense of detachment as the characters onscreen all begin to enter their “fight or flight” mode. Likewise, the use of fast-forwarding during contrasting sequences in the past and present serve to highlight the toxicity of celebrity culture, as Celeste goes from enjoying European sightseeing, to an ill-advised bender with her manager. Celeste’s pop songs, which are quite prominent in the third act of the film, were all written (at least partially) by Sia, who also served as a producer on the film.
Vox Lux provides an interesting take on the “rise to fame” narrative, and works hard to highlight both the toxicity of celebrity lifestyle and how pop music (as well as popular culture) can serve as a distraction from the more grim realities of the world that are emphasised by the shootings in both the film’s past and present. Emotional, determined, and at times unusual, Vox Lux works hard to sell you on its themes, largely succeeding in the process. It might not be for everyone, necessarily, but I would definitely recommend it for its performances and its unique take on celebrity culture.