There’s a scene in Vox Lux (2018) where Celeste, a fifteen-year-old girl from Staten Island on the verge of mass pop stardom, is lying on a hotel bed, with an older man who is presumed to have had sex with her. Celeste is in the foreground, staring straight at camera; the man, fumbling, inebriated, and a dark cityscape are behind her. Celeste tells the audience that the reason she loves pop music is that she just wants to make people feel happy, and not have to think too much. Her musings on pop are sobering and seem at odds with the ethos of the film she inhabits; Vox Lux wants its audience to think – about terrorism, celebrity worship, globalisation – and it to wrestle with these sweaty concepts as they are presented, callously, within its universe.
Vox Lux is director Brady Corbet’s sophomore feature, an epic pop ballad split into three acts (plus a prelude), hell-bent on explaining the twenty-first century to its audience whether its audience likes it or not. The first half of the film follows an electric Raffey Cassidy as Celeste, a teenager raised on “the wrong side of Reaganomics”, who at the turn of the millennium scarcely survives a shocking act of violence. With a bullet lodged in her neck, Celeste performs a song on national TV that catapults her to stardom.
As perfectly manufactured as the best pop song, young Celeste is stoic and mature for her age. Trauma, it’s suggested, does this to a person, and this is where Vox Lux succeeds: its interrogation of trauma’s lasting effects on the individual is novel. However, from the moment the film cuts from the early noughties to 2017 and we meet Celeste at age thirty-one, the magnetism felt by Cassidy is usurped by a swearing, drunk, brattish Natalie Portman whose performance is wastefully one-note. This stark change between young, wise Cassidy and older, childish Portman is jarring, showing how both trauma and stardom can stunt emotional growth. To the detriment of the narrative, this message is overshadowed by a mess of social issues, portentous narration, and forced motifs with a lot to say but dubious impact. Unfortunately, this is the film’s most striking feature: trying to say something.
There are too many elements to digest: the narration of Willem Dafoe feels out of place and surprises each time it returns; the decision for Celeste to boast a hackneyed Noo Yawk accent (which fluctuates in its delivery with Cassidy, and teeters on comedic caricature with Portman); the constant references to real-life acts of violence read a bit too on-the-nose. Vox Lux is an assault on the senses, but the result is more often annoying than gripping, more narratively-stunted than contemplative.
Going into the film, I was looking forward to seeing pop music and stardom explored in a nuanced light; after all, haven’t we all seen this kind of film before? The one with a jaded pop star whose voice has been stolen by the fame machine and co-opted by a blindly adoring public, whose music reeks of inauthenticity and a boring drug problem? This tired tale is what Corbet presents us with, while trying to convince us of its difference by accompanying it with sporadic images of men carrying assault rifles, and planes crashing into buildings.
The problem with telling viewers exactly what you want your film to portray is that they’ll know exactly what to judge it by. In the case of Vox Lux, we know that we’re meant to be watching a “21st century portrait” – Corbet tells us so at the end, and spends the entire film eager to explain his ethos. And it’s a shame. There are times when Vox Lux shines, mostly in intimate moments with a young Celeste: Cassidy dancing awkwardly at her first rehearsal, or sombrely recollecting a recurring nightmare she’s had since the attack. These moments are not only gripping, they are convincing – momentarily – of Corbet’s vision. That the world is a f*cked up place, with violence and PTSD and not caring enough about the stuff we should be caring about. Funnily enough, the harder he tries to explain his vision, the less I believe in it. Maybe he should have taken young Celeste’s advice and not thought too hard.
Vox Lux screened 2nd and 3rd March at Glasgow Film Theatre as part of the Glasgow Film Festival programme.
by Emma Olsson