Brady Corbet's Vox Lux is a horror movie about the link between hedonism and explosive violence in the 21st century. Don't let anyone tell you differently.
Brady Corbet's latest film, which had its North American premiere at TIFF 2018 and boasts original music by Sia, is almost definitely going to be overshadowed by Bradley Coopers A Star Is Born, even though the two have almost nothing in common. While the crowd-pleasing A Star Is Born is about a pop star who deals with fame and addiction, Vox Lux has a pop star, and fame, and addiction, but focuses instead on political and philosophical questions about what we're doing to ourselves as a culture. Natalie Portman recently described it as the most political film she's ever made (Variety, 5 Sep 2018) and with good reason.
The film opens with a harrowing (and graphic) depiction of the school shooting that catapults its protagonist, Celeste (played by Raffey Cassidy as a teen and Portman as an adult), to national attention. With a bullet lodged in her neck and a lifetime of chronic pain ahead of her, Celeste writes an uplifting song about her determination to survive and sings it during a candlelight vigil for the other shooting victims. The song becomes a breakout hit, Celeste lands a record contract, and her journey to become the world's biggest superstar begins.
Celeste's experience with fame — which leaves her cynical and narcissistic as an adult — isn't all that unusual. What is unusual is the almost suffocating feeling of doom that hovers over the narrative. We get it from the voiceover narration (delivered wonderfully by Willem Dafoe) that imparts each unremarkable moment in Celeste's career with the same grave tone, like a backward-looking portent that we'd use to describe Hitler's days in art school. We get it from the silent, drifting shots of something or someone rushing endlessly along an empty tunnel. We get it from an interrupted conversation where the young Celeste confesses to her sister (Stacy Martin) that she thinks she's done a bad thing. Celeste, the narrator, the composers, the cinematographer, and the film editors all seem to know something we don't — something about why events that seem so trivial have truly horrific importance — and it's unsettling right up until the film's final scene, when the truth about Celeste is revealed.
It's hard to explain what's so riveting about Vox Lux without revealing that truth, but suffice to say the film's concerned with the relationship between our ravenous consumption of escapist entertainment and the acts of terrorism that feel like they're becoming an almost daily occurrence. It's complicated way of saying (as one of the characters does) that we need escapist entertainment to let us forget the uglier parts of modern life, at least for a while.
From a technical perspective, Vox Lux takes an incredible risk by being serious and sincere at almost every moment. It's the kind of thing that either really works for you as a viewer, or inspires you to crack a bunch of jokes. Dafoe's narration is either going to rattle in your spine and make you dread what's going to happen next, or it's going to make you burst out laughing because it's so self-serious — there's nothing in between, and that's true for the entire mood and atmosphere of Vox Lux.
Just as Corbet really goes for it as a director, showing zero fear of haters, Portman gives a big, loud, unrelenting performance as the adult Celeste that's bold in all the right ways, while teetering on a bit too much. She captures the confidence of a woman who takes for granted that she's always the most talented, interesting, powerful person in the room, but isn't unusually smart or empathetic. During one of her very best scenes, Portman's Celeste answers questions from reporters about why international terrorists have started wearing masks from one of her videos, and we can tell that she both believes and doesn't believe what she's saying; that she's impatient with the questions, but feels a professional responsibility to be polite; that she's trying to hit the talking points her managers gave her, but she really doesn't care and wants the whole thing to be over. That's a lot to convey at once and, even when the character seems like she might be exhausting in real life, she is a believable character, which is a credit to Portman's performance.Vox Lux was bought by Neon (which also released Craig Gillespe's I, Tonya) during the festival, and is expected to reach theaters this December. It's a challenging, unpleasant, slow burn of a movie that's going to be a hard sell in the wake of A Star is Born, but it's offering something completely different, and something worth seeing, even if you're all topped up on pop star movies.