The cliché of the veteran pop star who has long lost their grip on rhyme, reason and reality might not be an environment you would want to spend too much time in, but this morally foggy universe has merit for fictional exploration. Perhaps for this reason alone there is justification for Brady Corbet’s claustrophobic and all-round icky second feature, Vox Lux. If not, then audiences might be seduced by the opportunity to see a potty-mouthed Natalie Portman cranked-up-to-11 and firing on all sorts of crazy cylinders.
Prior to two acts, a prelude finds a classroom silenced by a disaffected male student who riddles a school teacher and her pupils with bullets. Set in 1999, it is an unsubtle reference to the Columbine High School massacre, and sets out Corbet’s intentions as to his film’s overarching verisimilitude.
In Act I, 14-year-old musician Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) emerges as a wounded survivor of the mass shooting. Having penned an affecting lament on the tragedy, her song lures the interest of a record label. Under the guidance of her manager (Jude Law), and accompanied loyally by her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin), the industry sets to work in sculpting this earnest young girl into a well-oiled product.
As of Act II, matters have fast forwarded to 2017. Celeste is unrecognisable. Weary, keen of vice and pumped full of neuroses, Portman’s older incarnation is a ticking timebomb, giving any sane soul the impression of an individual inching towards the precipice. Her conduct is as deplorable as it is unpredictable, seemingly inured and immured into the mould of a pop star figure and in psychological freefall.
With such an invidious central protagonist, Vox Lux is unlikely to strike a chord with everyone, but likeability is a tricky measure of success. Does the film succeed on the basis of its own internal logic? On the whole, yes – even though there is argument to be made that it is front-loaded with its most emotionally stirring scenes. The washed-out cinematography by Lol Crawley sucks the air out of the picture effectively, suffocating the viewer in a manner not dissimilar to Larry Clarke’s notorious 1995 feature, Kids.
Aside from the input of SIA, who is credited as an executive co-producer and whose songs are brought to life by Portman, Scott Walker’s compositions bolster this feel-bad film with mellifluous orchestral strains. In one striking scene, the camera is fixed on the face of the young Celeste in a (presumably) post-coital conversation with a fellow musician, the pensive strings adding a sense of Hitchcockian tension to their conversation.
Vox Lux has important questions to ask. Chief among them: if regression and the risk of destabilising your mental health is the cost of fame, why would anyone set out to do its bidding? If Corbet’s slant says anything, it is a cynical one. The dream might be the product sold, but a nightmare is often the package delivered.
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