Vox Lux

A Star is Forlorn: Natalie Portman in Vox Lux
Verdict: 
6/10 - Brady Corbet's twisted satire of celebrity touches on some vital themes but ultimately fails to deliver a killer blow.
Release Date: 
Friday, May 3, 2019
Written by: 

In Brady Corbet's Vox Lux Natalie Portman stars as a popstar who got her big break as a teenager injured in a school shooting.

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At the start of last year's awards season two fictional rock biopics were tipped for success.

One, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga's new version of A Star Is Born, was nominated for eight Oscars and won one.

The other, Vox Lux, was forgotten by movie bigwigs, despite a stellar cast led by Natalie Portman and Jude Law, and original songs by Sia.

Watching director Brady Corbet's film, it's easy to see why.

Whereas A Star Is Born was pure heart-string tugging Oscar-bait, Vox Lux is an altogether stranger and more skittish animal.

Few real rock biopics have ever begun with a school shooting, but that's where Vox Lux pitches its opening in 1999, with teenager Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy) injured after trying and failing to talk an embittered male classmate out of a shooting spree.

While in hospital, she and her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) pen a song about the trauma and emotion caused by the incident.

Unable to talk about her emotions at a vigil for the victims of the shooting, Celeste performs instead, and, with news cameras present, her mournful ballad becomes a national hit.

Quickly on the scene is an unnamed manager (Law), who sees the opportunity to turn Celeste's fleeting fame into something bigger, hiring an exacting dance coach and whisking Celeste and Ellie off to Sweden so the younger girl can work with a hot new pop producer.

Law is often at his best when playing a sympathetic sleazeball, and his role in Vox Lux expertly walks the line between mentor and exploiter.

The film is split into chapters, with the early portion of the movie closing in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, before we skip to 2017, when Portman takes over as Celeste.

Now a pop diva whose star is still shining brightly but possibly on the wane, she has a teenage daughter of her own (also played by Cassidy), not to mention alcohol and attitude problems.

Her preparations for a major gig are interrupted by a terrorist attack on the other side of the world, as the perpetrators used masks and motifs that were once a major part of her pop iconography.

 

It's a fascinating premise that explores the disquieting nature of fame, with uncomfortable echoes of real-life events.

Although Celeste is no activist, it is easy to see parallels in the experiences of the Parkland High School students - teenagers whose boldness and charisma has thrust them into the media spotlight following a shooting at their school, and who look set to become public figures for years to come.

Large sections are shot tenderly in an almost homespun fashion, with the girls' trip to Sweden is documented in Super 8 footage.

Corbet uses the contrast between what we see on screen - two sisters nervously finding their way in a strange but exciting world - and the machinations we know are going on off-screen to expertly skewer the falseness of celebrity.

Musically, the late avant-garde musician Scott Walker's soundtrack provides a disconcerting contrast to Sia's expertly crafted and authentic pop tracks.

However, it is also a frustrating film. Although Portman, herself once a child star, gives a satisfyingly highly strung performance, the satire that is so sharp in earlier sections isn't honed to such a fine point in its climax.

Corbet's low-key method of trying to capture the shallow melancholia of fame, which worked so well in the chapters following Celeste's rise, is less effective, and her difficult and distant relationship with her mini-me daughter is at times jarringly cliched in a film that otherwise manages to steer clear of the obvious.

As a result, the final act leaves one wishing for a pay-off that drives home the film's satirical points, and teach us something about Portman's version of Celeste beyond the unknowable media creation that consumes her personality.

Vox Lux is a flawed but intriguing movie, with a message that feels urgent and necessary in a world where young people are busy creating their own social media image and the headlines skip between violent tragedies and celebrity suicides.

But one can see the reason it dropped out of awards contention as, like its subject, it ultimately fails to deliver on its early promise.

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