Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, a strange amalgam of rock-star clichés, begins in 1999 with its only remotely coherently mounted scene, a depiction no less of a school shooting. Corbet ratchets up a sense of unease when a student arrives to his band class and stands with his back to the camera as he awkwardly gets the teacher’s attention before pulling out a gun and killing her. The scene’s formally precise camera movements, redolent of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, weave around the shooter and his terrified classmates. As the band students scramble about and hurl themselves against a wall, the sound of alarms and screaming echoes in the halls outside, and the overwhelming sense that there’s no escape from death runs through every attempt to plead with the shooter. It’s a viscerally impactful opening, and a perverse way to introduce us to Vox Lux‘s protagonist, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy).
While recovering from a major spinal injury, Celeste pens a song with her older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), about her feelings and soon they’re performing it at a vigil for Celeste’s slain friends. And the song proves so moving that record producers come calling. As a narrator (Willem Dafoe) explains, Celeste’s use of “I” was changed to “we,” reinterpreting her personal expression of pain as national trauma and catapulting the song to hit-dom. The film, then, sets up Celeste as a beneficiary of tragedy, opening up a compellingly macabre narrative about how school shootings are becoming so commonplace that they can effectively serve as launchpads for stardom.
But that idea goes nowhere, as Vox Lux proceeds to play Celeste’s experience in the music industry mostly straight. Guided by a manager (Jude Law) whose no-bullshit approach loses its edge given how much room he makes for genuine concern for the teen, Celeste has meetings about the viability of a demo, plans a tour, and heads to Sweden to work with hitmakers and record a music video. Sia, who, along with Scott Walker, is responsible for the film’s music, penned one track here that sounds like a parody of a Lorde song circa 2013, and the incongruity of that sound being at least a decade ahead of its time undercuts the narration’s awkward attempts to parallel Celeste’s trauma with that of an entire country’s in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
The film’s thread—of pop music as a protean shorthand for personal and social ills—then carries through into 2017, which sees Celeste (played now by Natalie Portman) as a 31-year-old disillusioned artist grappling with alcoholism. At one point, she’s confronted with a breaking news story that terrorists have shot up a Croatian beach resort while wearing masks from her breakthrough music video. But this shocking event barely registers to her, as she’s more concerned with spending time with her daughter, Albertine (Cassidy again), in the leadup to a homecoming concert in Staten Island. Mother and daughter walk to a diner, where Celeste launches into a self-defensive monologue in which she alternates between rants about the music industry and her personal life. These outbursts illuminate nothing about the character’s inner life beyond the usual stresses of celebrity turmoil, which means that Celeste’s petulance is ultimately a banal show of martyrdom.
Vox Lux‘s image of a popstar in decline is a concise one, but it’s also unmistakably stale. Just about the only truly interesting insights that Corbet gives us into Celeste’s behavior are confined to Dafoe’s narration, such as an off-handed reference to a Mel Gibson-esque drunken, racist meltdown. Even then, though, such an anecdote provides only mild titillation, because had the moment been actually shown on screen, Vox Lux might have profoundly complicated Celeste as a character, maybe even undercut the film’s self-seriousness with some genuinely confrontational humor.
Portman plays Celeste like a car revving in first gear, deafeningly loud but scarcely moving. Throughout, the actress loudly proclaims the subtext of Celeste’s arrested development, and the character’s lack of modulation or growth in effect forces Portman to recycle simplistic rant after simplistic rant. At times, though, Corbet offers up a solid glimmer of parody. For one, he nails the sheer misery of press junkets in a great scene where Celeste must promote an attempted comeback album while contending with questions about the terrorist attack that every reporter focuses on almost exclusively. Using shot/reverse-shot setups that constantly cut between condescendingly stone-faced journalists and an increasingly frazzled Celeste, Corbet heightens the sense of bitter obligation and unfair treatment against the artist as reporters barely hide their belief that she’s washed up while barging past publicist demands to ask about banned topics of conversation. Celeste’s fury at the disdain leveled at her has a truly cathartic effect, if only because it feels as if the character finally has something to push against.
But this momentary sense of purpose soon dissipates, as the film abruptly wraps up with an extended concert sequence that presents a dimly parodic vision of contemporary art pop. This might have worked but for the sheer laziness of the film’s depiction of Celeste’s act, which is an elaborate concept performance involving “sci-fi anthems” yet doesn’t show the star switching costumes or even tempo as she rolls through three or four midtempo epics that all sound exactly the same. Even the choreography is embarrassingly simplistic, with Celeste swaying in place like a drunk guest at a wedding reception. Corbet films this audiovisual spectacle as if operating the camera feed for Celeste’s overhanging video screens, alternating between close-ups of the star’s face and wider shots of her wretched dancing, and throughout the sequence it’s difficult to get a sense of whether the filmmaker is playing the material as a parody or a sincere expression of Celeste’s emotional state.
As a giant screen flashes nonsense words behind her—one series of words reads “Baby,” “Avec,” and “Cash”—Celeste offers a pithy message of empowerment before soldiering through her slog of a show. The film cynically mocks that message even as it attempts to match the character’s feeling of momentary ecstasy, effectively preventing this conclusion from functioning either as an empathetic portrayal of Celeste’s brief moments of happiness before a crowd or as a nihilistic denial of poptimist aspiration.