Popstars and terrorism. Not two topics you’d immediately associate with each other but Brady Corbet’s intoxicating, fascinating and provocative second feature Vox Lux does just that. Formally an actor, Corbet announced himself as a promising talent with his well-crafted directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader. Vox Lux elevates Corbet to one of the most original, intriguing filmmakers currently around.
Split into two main acts and bookended by a prologue and epilogue, Vox Lux begins on a violent event that will change the life of high-school student Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) forever. Celeste is caught up in a horrifying school shooting but despite a major spinal injury she survives to tell the story. At a vigil for the victims, Celeste performs a moving ballad with her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) which resonates with the American public. The song catapults Celeste to stardom and she soon lands a lucrative record deal and the assistance of a rather slimy music manager (Jude Law). Celeste, along with her sister, are whisked off to Stockholm to record an album and in no time at all Celeste has become a pop idol – leaving her religious background firmly behind her.
Fast forward 18 years and Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) is releasing a new comeback album along with performing at a big concert in her hometown. She has endured scandals, been riddled with addiction problems and now has a teenage daughter named Albertine (Cassidy in a dual role). Her once tight-knit relationship with Elanor has deteriorated, mostly due to Celeste’s continued success which has left Eleanor to practically raise Albertine alone. There’s even more unwanted media attention around the event when the perpetrators of a terrorist attack in Croatia are reported to have been wearing replicas of masks from one of Celeste’s music video. This act, set in 2017, unfolds largely in exquisitely filmed real-time passages as Celeste struggles to make it through the day of her big arena show.
Some may be put off by Vox Lux’s juxtaposition of terrorist attacks with the flamboyant world of pop, but the film’s beautiful craftsmanship cannot be denied. Gorgeously shot on 35mm, it’s a visually sumptuous, glossy work with a chaotic, ominous orchestral score from Scott Walker. Celeste’s own pop tracks are brilliantly composed by Sia, who scores a set list of synth-heavy, catchy, anthemic tunes which have a real sense of authenticity to them. Corbet adroitly constructs the narrative – a more minimalist first act gives way to an increasingly hypnotic, theatrical second half and the film concludes with a dazzlingly choreographed, euphoric pop extravaganza.
Vox Lux doesn’t just have an attractive sheen, it’s also one of the most audacious, thematically rich, resonant works you’re likely to see this year. In directly referencing both the Columbine High School massacre and 9/11, Vox Lux seeks to explore the connection between popstars and terrorism – coaxing up a wealth of thought-provoking ideas in the process. The film innovatively maps out the lasting cultural impact of terrorism and the appetite humans have for turning tragedy into heroism. People use cultural icons like Celeste to overcome their collective grief and the film comments on the strange impulse to commodify tragedy. Additionally, Vox Lux touches on our unhealthy relationship with celebrities and explores the price of fame with insight and visual panache. Vox Lux is a film that reverberates for days to come and this only scratches the surface of its thematic depth.
All of this is held together by a powerhouse performance from Portman. She’s equal parts fierce, bratty and unhinged, yet she is also empathetic, emotionally wounded and deceptively intelligent. Portman’s complex portrayal is never less than enthralling and she completely looks the part too with her over-styled quiff and swaggering demeanour. She is utterly captivating and convincing as a world-famous pop star in the film’s climatic concert sequence. Cassidy is also great in her dual role, skilfully portraying Celeste’s loss of innocence and Albertine’s neglected, insecure disposition. Law puts in a delightfully gruff turn as Celeste’s manager and Willem Dafoe provides an amusingly sardonic narration.
Delivered with stylistic verve and thematic density, Corbet has crafted one of the most boundary-pushing, uniquely distinctive, mesmerising films of the year.