REVIEW: Vox Lux (2018)

voxlux_posterAfter surviving a deadly school shooting at the age of 13, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) strikes up a successful career as a pop star. More than a decade-and-a-half later, the adult Celeste (Natalie Portman) struggles with her fame, her family, and her own personal demons.

Vox Lux is the second film by actor-turned-writer/director Brady Corbet. It is split into two halves: one follows the young Celeste through the beginnings of her career, and the other portrays the immediate lead-up to her comeback concert tour. On the other side of the world, a terrorist faction disguise themselves in what appears to be old imagery from Celeste’s music videos, adding further stress to her already fragile state. The story is narrated by Willem Dafoe in a dry, matter-of-fact fashion, with a strong air of artificiality and a bucketload of pretension.

Pretension in itself is fine; there are many films that exercise an enormous amount of self-congratulatory boasting, yet use that artificial sense of importance to make a social comment or create a deliberately ridiculous tone. It is arguable that Vox Lux aspires to the latter by ascribing overly powerful cultural significance to a single pop star. If so, it does not seem to do it quite well enough to work in that fashion. Instead it feels oddly hollow. Where there was potential for deep characters and proper insight, there are weird pop music cliches and superficial behaviours. The odd terrorism-based subplot does not develop in any way that justifies its use, and that leaves things feeling rather lurid and sensationalist as well.

The performances are good. Natalie Portman creates a wonderfully bitchy and brittle diva out of the adult Celeste, while Raffey Cassidy is great in a dual role of both the young Celeste and her teenage daughter during the film’s second half. Jude Law plays Celeste’s raffish manager, who seems about as bad for her well-being as he is good for her career.

The film’s portrayal of the popular music industry seems extremely superficial, and gleaned more from a tabloid magazine than any actual research or personal insight. It is annoying to watch, because there is obvious potential for stories set inside the high pressure luxury bubble of the American music industry. Brady Corbet brings a lot of artistry to the film, however it is all coming from the creatives around him. Scott Walker’s musical score is strong. Original songs by Sia feel appropriate to Celeste’s character. Lol Crawley’s cinematography is attractive and dynamic.

This is the most frustrating kind of a movie, and I’ve referenced this problem before more than a few times: everything surrounding the core screenplay is very good. Actors have searched the screenplay and delivered what they can. Technical crew have delivered superb visual and aural material. It should be great, and indeed from promotional art and trailers it looks great, but the final production is a crushing disappointment. The emperor has no clothes. The potential has been wasted. Vox Lux will undoubtedly find its fans, but they aren’t worshipping anything significant – this is a simple confection.

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