Rightfully flashy and stylistic, this Natalie Portman acting vehicle ultimately feels uneven and disorientating.
Dir. Brady Corbet
2018 | USA | Drama/Music | 114 mins | 1.66:1 | English
NC16 (passed clean) for language, some strong violence, and drug content
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Willem Dafoe
Plot: An unusual set of circumstances brings unexpected success to a pop star.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice)
International Sales: Sierra/Affinity
Subject Matter: Dark
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed at Singapore International Film Festival ’18)
One could comment a fair bit about Brady Corbet’s creative flourishes here in Vox Lux, but while I am suitably impressed, I find the film satisfactory but unsatisfying. I have not heard about Corbet until now, and with his second feature under his belt (his first being 2015’s The Childhood of a Leader, which like Vox Lux competed at the Venice Film Festival), one could possibly see him as a promising filmmaker.
Vox Lux seems to be a step up for him, at least in terms of working with a more star-studded cast that includes the likes of Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Willem Dafoe. Dafoe is on narration duty here, whose voice comes in at key dramatic moments, like an omnipresent figure who is all-knowing about Portman’s character.
Portman, who’s also an executive producer of the film, plays Celeste, an immensely popular singer with a diva-ish, perhaps even cultish personality. The film tracks her tumultuous life journey from teenage girl (played quite well by Raffey Cassidy, who then plays Celeste’s daughter when Portman finally takes over) to adult mother.
Rooney Mara was attached to the lead role when the project was first announced.
When I say Portman ‘finally takes over’, I also mean to say that the film really kicks into its rightful gear. There’s a sudden palpable sense of witnessing a brilliant actress in her element, giving us a tour de force display, albeit sometimes too forcefully. It’s also difficult not to recall Portman’s Oscar-winning work in Black Swan (2010), since both characters have strong callings to the stage. If Aronofsky’s film was more psychological, perverse and bordering on horror, Corbet’s is flashier, dazzling and perhaps more ‘now’.
Vox Lux is no doubt a film of our times. It is very much a commentary on the thrills and perils of popularity and success—of enjoying the freedom to be oneself, yet also trying to reclaim one’s ‘self’ back from the public’s eye. One would assume that this paradox normally reconciles with itself, say, on stage where oneself and one’s self meld together.
But as far as Celeste’s relationship with fame is concerned, Vox Lux also paints a troubling picture of violence hitting close to home. Almost to jarring and disorientating effect, a beach massacre by terrorists plays out in the very country she is scheduled to perform that night. Much earlier in the prologue, Celeste as a young girl also suffered the experience of a high-school shooting.
Truth be told, these violent sequences are uneven, perhaps even sensationalistic. But the strange thing is that sensationalism is pretty much the hallmark of Celeste’s productive life—she’s never one to shy away from controversy. Ultimately, despite this being a ready-made acting vehicle for Portman, it is in the areas of style, tone and manner of storytelling that Vox Lux is found indulgent yet wanting at the same time.