Film Review: Vox Lux.

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.
 
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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews Vox Lux, directed by Brady Corbet and starring Raffey Cassidy, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Stacy Martin.

Image from film Vox Lux, directed by Brady Corbet, produced by Killer Films et al, streamed by Kanopy database.

VOX LUX

Prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present which had reached an extreme of its cycle, and there was no imagining which new forms it or she may assume. - Narrator, Vox Lux.

A meditation on pop culture and the part it plays in 21st century life, a cautionary tale about how corruption can take hold of a careless soul, a prayer for a world fighting against itself. This is Vox Lux.

This is also a difficult movie, so obstinate in its vision that it can be tough to recommend. Much like its central character – the fictional singer Celeste, it’s a prickly and difficult experience. One that’s likely to alienate more people than it wins over. For those that fall under its spell though (think of the beautiful emptiness of recent films like Nocturnal Animals, Under the Silver Lake or Inherent Vice) it’s a transfixing, hypnotic fable that takes a different shape with each re-watch.

The second feature from director Brady Corbet, Vox Lux follows the life of Celeste, a hugely successful pop star, from the genesis of her career through to the tenuous peak of fame. We start on a tone that is going to hang over the entirety of the story, as our 14 year old hero barely survives a nightmarish school shooting and is elevated to the level of national icon when the song written by her and her sister Ellie in tribute to lost schoolmates is seized by the public as an anthem of perseverance. As the girls are escorted through the strange world of unfurling super-stardom under the wing of their newly appointed Manager (Jude Law), a life-long rift will develop between the siblings, and their devoutly Christian faith will be eroded by the realities of their world.

When, at the half-way point of the movie, we jump seventeen years ahead, we find a Celeste that has been completely transfigured from the girl we’ve come to know. Natalie Portman (channelling the strain of artistic mania that ran through her role in Black Swan) has taken over the role, and we are now in the company of a cynical, self-obsessed narcissist ill-equipped to deal with a career that has hit extremely shaky ground. Just as her birth as a singer came from the ashes of a campus shooting in 1999, now in 2017 another gun-based public attack has occurred, with the perpetrators wearing the distinctive face-covering masks made famous by Celeste in her music videos. With her persona at a new low point, her addictions raging out of control, and her familial relationships in tatters, this may be the beginning of the end for another pop star.

And family is worth mentioning while discussing this film. In an extremely interesting, confronting choice, the actor Raffey Cassidy is called on to provide a strange through-line here. In the first half of our story, she plays the young Celeste – filled with wonder and hope, trying to calm the madman that will forever change her life, rehearsing tirelessly through physical pain and establishing herself as a figure to be respected. In a turn that takes some blinking to get used to, she returns in the second half of the story, playing her own daughter Albertine while Portman steps into the shoes of Celeste. It’s a bold move, potentially confusing but fitting in with the movie’s steadfast decision to be its own strange creation. If the intention is for Cassidy to represent a more innocent, idealized force through the story it works, even if it is a little heavy-handed.

Juxtaposing the ideas of the way culture presents itself to us now, with mass shootings and pop culture ephemera jostling for space on our screens, in our minds, and in our souls makes for a deeply strange experience.  The triumphant climax of this raw experiment at least gives us hope that culture is still a pursuit worth indulging in, even in the darkest of times, as we embrace the music that Celeste has created while remaining acutely aware of her many failings, and the poisoned soil that gave birth to them.

Brady Corbet has stated that “nobody asked for it” regarding Vox Lux, and that it was far from a commercial success. For us though, the relative failings of the film, like the flaws of those who act inside it, simply amplify that the art lives on regardless of its maker – capturing forever one facet of a confusing, calamitous century.

Further reading

  • Rising Director Brady Corbet Talks 'Vox Lux'. Tauer, Kristen, 2018. WWD: Women's Wear Daily, Dec., p.14. (article)
  • The sound of music: What are movies like 'Vox Lux' and 'A Star Is Born' trying to say about pop music?. Rao, Sonia, 2019. Chicago Tribune; 03 Jan., p.1. (article)
  • Film violence and the institutionalization of the cinema. Slocum, J David, 2000. Social Research, Vol. 67(3), pp.649-681. (article)
  • Fabricating the Absolute Fake - Revised Edition America in Contemporary Pop Culture. Kooijman ; Amsterdam University Press ; 2014. (ebook)
  • Dark side of the tune popular music and violence. Johnson, Bruce and Cloonan, Martin ; Burlington, VT : Ashgate ; c2008. (ebook

 
 

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