Vox Lux begins with a bang. No spoilers, but it's the kind of onscreen violence to which most of us have hopefully not yet become desensitized. But rather than focus on the grief following tragedy—at least outwardly and obviously—the event, as we'll call it, spurs hope—and, oddly, a major pop music career.
The film is primarily cut into two acts. The first follows high school-aged Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), a survivor of the heinous event, as she collaborates with her older sister on bubblegum pop songs that uplift rather than provide soundtrack for wallowing. As Celeste puts it in one scene, she doesn't want people to have to think about it too much; she just wants to provide something comforting. Vox Lux's songs were written by Sia, and they're nothing if not catchy; vignettes that illustrate the studio process or the early, hopeful days of fame and notoriety are certainly interesting as well.
Along for the ride is Jude Law as Celeste's manager. He's the only one who can speak to her plainly, though he's rough around the edges and seemingly more interested in protecting her than shooting straight. Law works fine in this role, and produced the film as well, though his native English accent creeps up from the corners of his take on a gruff American music industry type nearly always.
And so it goes that we begin to feel protective of Celeste ourselves. Cassidy embodies her naïvete, sweetly regarding producers and session musicians and label PR talking heads, growing a closer bond with her sister and operating like a wide-eyed innocent barely accustomed to a higher level of attention. Whether we mean to or not, we begin to care for her, too. We just want her to be OK.
Act two, however, plays out a mite differently. The jump accounts for 16 years, and while we don't see what's happened to Celeste in that time, the older version (played by Natalie Portman, who also produced) seems exhausted, a long-time pop icon who can play the game and get her shit done but whom, we're told, has gone blind in one eye from drinking household products during a southern America leg of a previous tour—and she's become awfully difficult. She dominates the sister she once seemingly loved and speaks to her teenage daughter like she's trying to sell her something. This second act takes its time through long and simple yet effectively clever scenes of dialog and little else. Portman brings it here, half-lying to her daughter and half-believing those lies herself. She is a diva, and perhaps an arrogant one, and if not for the earlier bits of the film, we'd hardly believe it's the same young woman, nor would we probably empathize with her during contentious interviews with press or explosive arguments with her sister and manager.
This is a testament to writer/director Brady Corbet's vision. Corbet, primarily an actor from films like Mysterious Skin and Funny Games, proves a capable knack for crafting story, and his patient, metered scenes of character development stand in stark contrast with the thoughtless pop of his principal's body of work. Still, if the goal was to nudge us toward consistently caring for Celeste by showcasing her more vulnerable youth, we start to lose that thread during the second act. Visually, the late-film concert scene is stunning—whether or not we're buying Portman as dancer and singer, however, is another story. The short version is that we don't. She's a bit of an asshole. The longer version, however, says something about the corrupting nature of fame and fortune and something else about walking a mile in someone else's bejeweled spandex bodysuit.
Is there a moral, though? Not particularly, but one isn't particularly needed. All told, Vox Lux is a relatively simple story about its characters, is written quite well and is a different kind of film existing someplace between the cold worlds of Aranofsky and the offbeat timing of Jeunet. Fame may well be a sickness, but even if it is, it's one we might gleefully accept just for the hollow love of countless strangers.
+Captivating and sometimes shocking; pretty in its ugliness
-Couldn't Portman have taken some dance lessons?
Directed by Corbet
With Portman, Law and Cassidy
Center for Contemporary Arts, R, 110 min.