A story about popular art born amidst violent trauma. A thriller about the remorseless and cannibalistic machinations of fame. An allegory for the calcification of celebrity-obsessed American society. A study of the interactions between pop culture and global terrorism. A bildungsroman about the possible consequences of a troubled childhood. A dark fairy tale about the music industry. A threnody for a pre-Columbine and 9/11 world. The bold, wildly ambitious Vox Lux is all of these. Written by former actor Brady Corbet
and his partner Mona Fastvold
, and directed by Corbet, the film takes the basic A Star is Born template, and gives it an angry 21st-century makeover, mercilessly torpedoing Bradley Cooper
's whimsical paean to Old Hollywood romanticism into neon-soaked glitter-adorned oblivion. As a director, Corbet exploded onto the scene with the sensational The Childhood of a Leader (2015)
, a visually stunning examination of the birth of 20th-century fascism from 19th-century aristocracy, and with which Vox Lux has much in common - both examine troubled formative childhood years intertwined with global tragedy that ultimately produce less than admirable adults; both use the specifics of a small group of people to synecdochally engage with larger socio-political issues; both unapologetically indict a culture in its death throes. And whilst Vox Lux could be accused of relying too heavily on voiceover, straying into cliché on occasion, and walking a very fine line between portentousness and pretentiousness, all things considered, this is another superb film from a director who, at only 30, is already a unique and exciting cinematic voice.
Divided into four parts ("Prelude - 1999"; "Act I: Genesis - 2000-2001"; "Act II: Regenesis - 2017"; and "Finale - XXI"), Vox Lux begins in 1999 when teenager Celeste Mongomery (Raffey Cassidy
) survives a school shooting. Along with her sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin
), she composes and performs a song for the victims, which catapults her to stardom, under the watchful eye of a talented, if not entirely scrupulous, manager (Jude Law
). With Act I concluding with 9/11, the film then jumps to Croatia in 2017, as a terrorist group open fire on a beach, wearing masks similar to those worn in one of Celeste's first music videos. A neurotic, self-obsessed, and barely functioning alcoholic, the adult Celeste (Natalie Portman
) is now mother to a teenage daughter of her own, Albertine (also played by Cassidy), and, struggling to finish an album and put together a tour, the last thing she needs is to be associated with more violence.
Aesthetically, as one would expect from the director of Childhood, there's all manner of things to be fascinated by in Vox Lux. The film's temporal structure, for example; whereas the Prelude and Act I cover about two years, followed by a 16-year gap, Act II and the Finale take place over the course of roughly eight hours. Or the existential, adjective-heavy, and almost "once upon a time" like quality to the voiceover narration (provided by Willem Dafoe
), which is the very definition of purple prose, but which works magnificently in context, serving as a kind of omniscient chorus on events. Also aesthetically important is the music. The unashamedly over-produced and plastic songs sung by Celeste are all written by Sia
(although they're performed by Cassidy and Portman), whilst the score is provided by the legendary Scott Walker
, whose music so elevated the grandeur of Childhood of a Leader. He's more restrained and contemplative here, but it's still an exceptionally important component of the film.
Thematically, the film's most salient concern is a cynical deconstruction of celebrity and fame, specifically the 21st-century post-reality TV incarnation of such (there's a reason the closing credits give the film the subtitle, "A Twenty-First Century Portrait"). In an era whereby one can become famous for virtually anything, the film is painfully of its time, saying as much about celebrities and the machinery of fame as it does about celebrity-obsessed culture. Important in this is that there's no real attempt to make adult Celeste likeable or sympathetic. Sure, she's very much a product of her time, and she's been forced to live her entire life within the parameters of what happened when she was 13. But she's also emblematic of some of the worst components of her time, and Corbet is unconcerned whether the audience empathises with her.
Of course, much of the film's biting satire is tied into the plot itself, with Celeste building a career based off a massacre; gun violence used to sell records (a nice visual representation of this is that Celeste turns the neck scarf she has to wear post-shooting into a glittery accessorised part of her brand). She is literally the beneficiary of tragedy in a world where mass shootings have become so commonplace they can serve as launch-pads for musical careers. Celeste herself articulates an important element of the connection between pop culture and mass murder when she says, "nihilist radical groups perceived as superstars. If everyone stopped talking about them, they'd disappear", which is very reminiscent of the main theme in Natural Born Killers (1994)
, and which is an even more pertinent sentiment today than it was in 1994. By way of illustration, think about how most people know the names of the Columbine shooters, or the 2012 Aurora shooter, or the 2017 Las Vegas shooter, or, to get away from the US, the 2011 Utøya shooter. Now think about how many victims from any of those tragedies we can name off the top of our heads.
Vox Lux doesn't provide any answers to the question of the crossover between pop culture and terrorism - how one might lead to the other, or how both provide opportunities for fame - but that's because there are no easy answers. It's simply the way things are, and Corbet's cynicism emphasises that just because this is the way things are, doesn't mean this is the way they should be. And the irony at the heart of the film is that in 1999, a mass shooting shaped Celeste, but in 2017, Celeste shaped a mass shooting. This is the nightmare of the 21st-century celebrity wheel of time.
There are more grounded engagements with celebrity as well. An early scene, for example, sees Celeste proudly declare that she's "in command of my own destiny", followed immediately by a scene of her vomiting into a toilet after drinking too much. Another aspect of this, and something the film has in common with Cooper's A Star Is Born (2018)
, is that as time goes on, Celeste moves further and further away from her stylistic origin point. Introduced as a good Christian girl into folk music and gentle ballads, when we meet her as an adult, she's an autotuned, silicon amalgamation of Madonna
, Katy Perry
, and Lady Gaga
, with her music just one step above boy band quality (as she herself says, "I don't want people to have to think too hard. I just want them to feel good").
In terms of problems, there are a few. Obviously, any film with such lofty aims as mapping the ideological decline of 21st culture onto the rise and fall and rise of a pop star is setting itself a huge task, and at times Corbet's ambitions exceed his reach. Parts of the adult Celeste portion of the film definitely stray into melodrama, and the fact that the first act is so good does make the second seem a little prosaic in comparison (although the Finale is mesmerising). And although the totality is satisfying, I couldn't shake the feeling that the first act seemed to be setting up for something upon which the second fails to deliver.
Nevertheless, this is a vicious, deeply cynical, and deeply ironic dissection of contemporary culture and the forces that drive it. However, although finding much to criticise in the millennial pop landscape, Corbet is never nihilistic, mainly because Celeste may have lost her soul, but she is still able to make millions of people happy, even if only transitorily. Both a victim of her time and its desensitised apotheosis, through her, much as he did through Prescott in Childhood of a Leader, Corbet explores questions relating to the interaction between the private and the public. Where are we as a society? What does our obsession with celebrity say about us? What is the cost of fame? Is there any real difference between fame and notoriety?