TIFF 2018: Vox Lux
Natalie Portman plays a pop diva who experienced a school shooting in her teens in Brady Corbet's ambitious morality tale
According to the final credits, Brady Corbet’s macabre fable Vox Lux is a “21st-century portrait”, an indictment of American society and false idols covered in glitter and sequins. It is an ambitious film with big ideas, with lead performances from Natalie Portman and Jude Law.
Divided into several sections narrated by Willem Dafoe, Vox Lux opens with an act of unthinkable violence. Caught up in a school shooting, a young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) must live with both the memories of her classmate’s crimes and the constant reminder of a bullet permanently lodged in her spine. In a twisted series of events, a song written by Celeste and her sister for the memorial service becomes a national hit. Corbet’s narrative begins here as tragedy becomes stardom, a morality tale for a modern America intent on capitalising on all its sin.
As Vox Lux progresses, Celeste’s rise and fall as a pop superstar becomes the focus, with Raffey Cassidy recycled in the second act, now playing an older Celeste’s (Natalie Portman) daughter. Another shooting occurs. This time a group of extremists attack innocent people on a beach in Croatia wearing sequined masks made popular in one of Celeste’s music videos. Her persona is a stark symbol of the moral corruption of the West, they argue, at once a condemnation of pop music and celebrity culture and a conflation of violence and sensationalism. These terrorists just want to be famous too, after all.
The film works through some huge concepts for contemporary times. Celeste’s character seems to be a fusion of many different types of star, and it is hard not to draw comparisons to others based on either her personal plight or the crisis going on around her. Corbet’s questions are fascinating in many ways, but equally, it feels a little troubling to have so many thrown into the mix at once with little time to reflect on possible interpretations. While the film provides no concrete answers, its heavy-handed metaphors still feel a little spoon-fed.
In its second act, the film bites off more than it can chew and it becomes frustrating to watch as the larger ideas about celebrity culture narrow down to a focus on Celeste’s personal and professional breakdowns. Its concerns with façade are interesting but it leaves the film itself to only scratch at the surface with weak dialogue and unconvincing performances.
As clever as Vox Lux tries to be, something is lacking. The film seems to rely on its symbolism, this auto-tuned world of sparkles and terror, without ever finding anything more to say.
Vox Lux screened at Toronto International Film Festival. For more of our TIFF coverage, head to theskinny.co.uk/festivals/international-festivals
Follow Caitlin Quinlan on Twitter at @csaquinlan
Corrections: This review incorrectly stated that Steve Buscemi played the Narrator in Vox Lux