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For Natalie Portman in the year 2018, conventional movie stardom is a home she can always return to. As of late, however, she’s preferred to restrict herself to the occasional visit. The gaps between straight-down-the-middle studio projects have gotten wider, even though her presence at multiplexes never quite fades. It’s been five years since her last appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But as an actress with the name recognition to get stranger, smaller movies the green light, she’s grown judicious and adventurous in her role selection.
Her CV contains all the typical beats of your standard-issue A-lister résumé, just in their most unlikely or sophisticated form. These days, her version of a popcorn picture would be something like Annihilation, a heart-of-darkness march into the metaphysical unknown more conceptual than most modern sci-fi by half. Her take on Oscar bait would be Jackie, an elliptical meditation on grief and historicity which avoided cliché so defiantly that it polarized actual awards voters. Where other actors dabble in directing with glossy vanity projects, she returned to Israel to adapt a difficult novel for a film she didn’t even bother pushing all that hard in American theaters. Her peers might try to stretch their range with the occasional art film; she’s charted the limits of sense and experience in two collaborations with Terrence Malick.
Then there’s Vox Lux, a polarizing work of such ambition that it couldn’t possibly fit in the preceding paragraph. The first half follows a teenage girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) through the crucible of tragedy along with her first steps as a newly minted pop star. Around the midway point, Brady Corbet’s film smash cuts forward 16 years and Portman steers the character into a downward spiral. The adult Celeste has a drinking problem, a drug problem, a being-a-negligent-mother problem, a terrorism problem, and a slew of other mental stressors that start to bear down on her as she readies her new concert tour. Here, Portman’s proficiency with women on the edge led to one of the most indelible performances of a challenging, unpredictable career.
During an interview with Vulture one frigid afternoon at Manhattan’s Whitby Hotel — a stone’s throw from the towering Sixth Avenue office buildings in which a guileless Celeste signs away her soul to the record executives — Portman talked all things Vox Lux, from her Noo Yawk accent to the massively scaled concert concluding the film to Celeste’s real-world inspiration. (Or lack thereof.)
First things first: the accent. Could you walk us through the process of forming Celeste’s voice?
I worked with my same dialect coach that I had on Jackie and Planetarium. She got dialects from a very specific subset of Staten Island, and then we just went full force with it. Because from the time she’s a kid, she’s exaggerating it in a way that makes it like an armor. There are people who, when they become famous, want to emphasize that they’re still from the street. It’s a shield of authenticity, and then the toughness also gives her more of a don’t-mess-with-me vibe. But of course, it’s transparently a performance. She’s on all the time.
I spoke with the director last week, and he had mentioned seeing some misinterpretations of the film. Have you found that dramatic choices like this can sometimes be misconstrued?
Hmm, I don’t know, if only because I don’t read the things people write about me.
That sounds healthy.
Oh, yeah. You latch onto the negative and ignore the positive, so I don’t find it to be helpful if it just makes me self-conscious. Plus, at this point, you’re not pointing out anything we can fix. I can’t go back in the film and change my accent. It doesn’t feel constructive, so I don’t have much of an idea of the reception apart from the interviews I’ve been doing, and face to face, people tend to be pretty friendly.
What’s been more interesting to me is how people make parallels to other roles I’ve done. People can draw thematic links that I’m too close to notice myself. I find all of this productive, more so than getting feedback on my portrayal. Pointing out running threads in my career makes me aware of what kinds of roles I’m drawn to, which I’m not really conscious of. I see my own tendencies more clearly.
The film being structured as it is, jumping from Celeste as a kid to her self-destructive adulthood, suggests that fame has had a poisonous effect on her over time. You’re someone who began acting at a very young age; was this something that you were mindful of, or made a conscious effort to avoid?
There are so many pop-culture stories of the child star flameout, the whole starlet gone wrong is a classic narrative in both music and Hollywood. I was definitely aware of that much, and my parents were hyperaware, so there was plenty of counterprogramming to my work.
Come to think of it, we don’t see much of Celeste’s parents at all in the film.
That was an active decision on [director] Brady [Corbet]’s part. We did interviews together earlier and he was talking about this exact thing, that he didn’t want to provide any easy answers, or fingers to point. That would be such a Western Intro to Psychology way to read the movie, like, “It was the parents! Of course!” To paraphrase what he said, some parents aren’t good or bad, they’re just neutral forces in their kids’ lives. They’re just there. Celeste isn’t a tragic victim of circumstance, either. She has an agency, a hand in her own demise. It empowers her, in a destructive sense.
My favorite scene might be when Celeste has the tantrum in the dressing room before the show. It feels unbound from realism, in a more accented style of performance. Is there an expressionistic quality to your acting?
Brady talks about the first half of the movie being in a minimalist mode, and the second half in a maximalist mode. It’s all extremes, and that goes for the acting as well. A lot of the stylistic choices — the fact that nobody ages in the film except Celeste, for one — there’s a purposeful fabulist side to it. So when my character calls for it, I take them a step back from reality. I think movies have lost a lot from trying to be naturalistic. Now, there are many films in a more naturalistic style that I love and move me a great deal, but there should be room for art on both sides of that divide. Most of the history of film is in the non-realistic world, tied up in fantasy and metaphor and fable. We got a lot of latitude from Celeste’s mantra, “They wanted a show, I gave ‘em a show.”
There’s a feedback mechanism, and this is what Brady means when he talks about the “pageantry of evil,” where people get rewarded with attention for bad behavior. The more outrageous, the more obnoxious, the more vulgar a figure can be, the more energy we spend on thinking and talking about them. It keeps cycling back into itself, and Celeste has already been through that cycle a lot of times in the second half.
I’ve seen a lot of interest in pinning the model for Celeste on a real-world pop star, and I wanted to offer you a chance to go on record.
No, there’s no one inspiration. Brady talks about her as an avatar for America. There’s not even a single pop star working right now that you could put your finger on. There are elements reminiscent of recurring tropes in pop stardom, the spiraling star who pulls it together, so you get shades from plenty of familiar stories. But these are archetypal. She’s not supposed to be a stand-in for anybody from the modern climate of pop music.
After having done Black Swan, was the lengthy final performance no big deal?
It was a very big deal! Going into any of these situations requires a great deal of ignorance about the scope of what will actually be expected of you. If you know what it’s going to entail, you’d never agree to it. But you go in blind, like, “Sure, I can figure this out in a month!” and then you just trust the experts around you and the [waves hand] magic of cinema. But this was a whole different variety of performing for me, learning the songs and recording and lip-sync training and moving with the other dancers. Keeping up the stamina for these rehearsals and the shoots gave me a new respect for what touring singers and dancers do.
My voice makes me want to jump out of my skin when I’m transcribing the recordings of interviews. How’d it feel to hear yourself for the first time in the final mixed recording, with all the Auto-Tune?
Oh, this was very fun! Because I had spent the studio sessions constantly apologizing, “I’m so sorry you have to listen to this,” and the song’s producer was like, “Ha! Don’t you worry your little head.” But then, when I heard it, I was thrilled. I asked Brady, when he first offered me the role, if he needed to hear me sing. And he just said, “That doesn’t matter.” In that moment, what he was going for started to make more sense to me.
Do you consider the ending to be redemptive for Celeste?
I do not. I think back to what Raffey says as Celeste in the beginning, “I don’t want them to think too much, I just want them to have fun.” That’s the voice of light: after all of this reflection about the world we live in, you can shut that off and escape into the music.
But isn’t there something solipsistic about shutting off, when we’ve just seen how dire things can be out in the world?
Yes, but there’s a beauty to it also. Maybe there is, you know, “the power of art” to help you find light when you’re in darkness. We see some reaction shots of the crowd, and they’re losing themselves in their love for Celeste, as if the world inside that stadium isn’t so dire. The scene’s not meant to be sarcastic, and neither is Raffey’s statement.
By anyone’s measure, Vox Lux is a dense film. Did you and Brady do much talking about big-picture stuff, subtext and whatnot?
What we spent the most time discussing was how this film occupies the space between the wars of this century. His first film, Childhood of a Leader, bridged the period between World War I and World War II. He wanted to know what conflicts could define the 21st century in the same way those defined the 20th. The war on our soil is mass shootings, and the foreign war is terror. How do we bridge the cultural gap between them using this character, is the main question that the film poses. That fascinated me. You don’t often get to think about film with this framing.
As an actress, Natalie Portman has never been short of audaciousness, from her breakthrough role aged 12 as a precocious assassin in Léon: The Professional, to the role that won her the Oscar, as a masochistic ballerina in Black Swan, to her turn as Jackie Kennedy in Jackie. She builds on this repertoire of complex protagonists with Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, in which she plays Celeste, the survivor of a brutal school shooting who becomes a pop superstar after she writes and records a heartfelt anthem for the victims. The film is a commentary on the loss of innocence, set against the backdrop of our nation’s tragic gun culture and obsession with celebrity.
Did you know Brady Corbet before this project? Were you looking to do a musically-themed movie?
I watched his film [The Childhood of a Leader] and was really impressed by his work. His writing [in Vox Lux] was so specific and great. I would say the words as I was reading the screenplay; both the form of how Celeste says words and how she speaks in a specific manner. And she’s monologuing all the time. The content that she’s saying; she’s an incredible character and sometimes says nonsense, and sometimes says really insightful things all mixed together. It was a childhood dream come true to get to sing, like singing with a brush in front of the mirror, but I wouldn’t categorize this movie as a musical.
How does the PTSD from the school shooting impact her as she gets older?
It definitely affects her. Whenever we go through devastation, it haunts us, but she picks herself up. Because she had the experience, it becomes like a common occurrence, and people learn to live with the most extraordinary circumstances.
Production was delayed due to financing dropping out. How did that time off further assist in your preparation?
I was on my way to the airport to fly to New York when they called me, and I turned around and went back home. I had prepped everything, but had to prep again and I worked on the accent. In preparing the choreography we had three or four weeks with Benjamin [Millepied]. He was working with his company at the same time. He’d teach me and then I’d rehearse with movement trainer Raquel Horsford. I also did five or six recording sessions.
What rock musical documentaries did you watch in preparing to play Celeste?
I watched all the top ones, but I don’t really feel that she’s based on a particular person at all. I learned a lot about the lifestyle of what they’re doing, the rigor of being on the road, the taxing shows night after night, all the work and preparation, the dynamic relationship between all of the people a pop star travels, lives and works with; the family members and how they fit in. Sometimes they work for the pop star. Having difficult relationships with siblings seemed to be a recurring theme. I picked up on all their small behavior.
Being politically active, how did you feel after the midterm elections?
I feel excited about the many types of people who are representing more of what America looks like. The typical make-up of our government is slowly looking more like the make-up of our country. [Editor’s note: In an election record, 101 women won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives including such landmarks with the first female Muslims, Native American and youngest candidate being elected.]
Being an active member of Time’s Up, do you find that there’s any resistance from the industry in the campaign for inclusion riders on productions?
There is a resistance because I think a lot of people are making the argument that you’re hiring someone for their talent, not for their gender. Of course, I don’t think that anyone thinks the argument should ignore bias. There’s the great orchestra example which started a few years ago. The top orchestras were entirely male and what they started doing were auditions behind a curtain to judge the listening of the music. Suddenly there was a 50/50 parity in the make-up of their orchestras. They didn’t realize the unconscious bias against women. Most industries can’t do job interviews behind a curtain. It goes to show that we have so much bias in not recognizing talent and allowing it to express itself. Of course, no one wants to get a job because of their marginalization, you want to get the job because of your talent. But there are so many who don’t get the opportunity since they are marginalized, and there are those who actually appreciate others’ values, talent and voices.
Roles for women—have they improved since you first began in this business?
I think it’s still really challenging, there’s a lot of tropes that are repeated and revisited. Also for women of color, it’s extremely difficult to be represented. However, this year, we saw the first Asian-American female story to be told by a studio in 25 years [Crazy Rich Asians]. Latinos are even more poorly represented; that is something people aren’t being shown at all. But white women are the most represented of all the women and it’s a challenging thing to show a full humanity. So, I think there’s a lot to be done when it comes to giving more opportunities to other people, and allowing people from all types of experiences to tell their stories.
You have increasingly become more involved as a producer on the projects you star in. What do you love about that part of the job, and does it help to have a voice in productions when they become challenged, as was the case on Jane Got a Gun?
It’s nice to be a part of projects I believe in and can help shepherd, even if I’m not the director or writer. I’m still learning and I’m not one to claim something when I have so much to learn. With Jane Got a Gun, that started with a lot of genuine interest in the creative process, and turned into a harrowing experience for everyone involved. I don’t look at that as any sort of victory. It was very challenging and humbling, an experience where you learn how much you can be better and how much you still have to learn.
Will you direct again?
Yes, but I’m not sure what.
Has there ever been any talk of doing a sequel to your first breakout film Léon: The Professional, where we see a much older Mathilda?
There was a little bit of talk about that at one point, but I don’t have any plans to do that project.
Natalie Portman is optimistic about the growing number of women in elected positions, but she knows change in Hollywood won’t come as swiftly as it did in congress. Portman is a founding member of Time’s Up, the anti-harassment initiative formed as a response to #MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein scandal. In response to a question about whether people in Hollywood are embracing inclusion riders — a contractual obligation that ensures film and TV productions hire more women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities — Portman told Deadline there is still resistance to the idea.
“There is a resistance because I think a lot of people are making the argument that you’re hiring someone for their talent, not for their gender,” said Portman, citing an example that top orchestras used to be all-male until some began a blind audition process, which naturally created 50/50 gender parity. “It goes to show that we have so much bias in not recognizing talent and allowing it to express itself.”
The concept for inclusion riders was first created by the prolific Dr. Stacy L. Smith at USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, though very few people knew what it was was until Frances McDormand forcefully called for its use during her Best Actress acceptance speech at the 2018 Academy Awards. Since then, Time’s Up has embraced the idea as part of its advocacy work.
In September, Warner Bros. became the first major studio to implement a company-wide inclusion policy, partnering with actor and producer Michael B. Jordan to increase diversity and inclusivity in front of and behind the camera. (Its parent company, WarnerMedia, also owns Turner and HBO).
“Of course, no one wants to get a job because of their marginalization, you want to get the job because of your talent,” said Portman. “But there are so many who don’t get the opportunity since they are marginalized, and there are those who actually appreciate others’ values, talent, and voices.”
In her newest movie, Brady Corbet’s “Vox Lux,” Portman plays a difficult rock star named Celeste, a Lady Gaga-esque figure who is haunted by a tragic event from her past.
When asked if she’s noticed an improvement in the quality of roles for women, Portman said, “it’s still really challenging, there’s a lot of tropes that are repeated and revisited. Also for women of color, it’s extremely difficult to be represented.” She noted recent milestones like “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first studio movie centered on an Asian-American woman in 25 years, but added that Latinx stories are still grossly underrepresented.
Portman added, “There’s a lot to be done when it comes to giving more opportunities to other people, and allowing people from all types of experiences to tell their stories.”
Oscar winner Natalie Portman sits down on TODAY to talk about her new movie, “Vox Lux,” in which she stars as a troubled pop diva who survived a tragedy.
Director Brady Corbet‘s Vox Lux is like the warped, nasty sibling of A Star Is Born. The film starts, quite literally, with a bang, when teenager Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is the sole survivor of a school shooting. Footage of Celeste singing at a memorial service sweeps the nation, blasting the young girl into the pop-star stratosphere thanks to Jude Law‘s savvy talent manager. Flash-forward a decade or two and Celeste—now played by Natalie Portman, going all out for this role—is a Gaga-esque superstar, but the years in-between have sharpened her naive edges into something much more tragic. Vox Lux has been pretty divisive among critics, but I really dug it; like Celeste herself, the film is a wicked piece of work, but you have to admire its ambition.
Before Vox Lux‘s debut, I sat down with Natalie Portman and Raffey Cassidy to discuss the film. Check out what they had to say in the player above and below is exactly what we talked about.
Natalie Portman and Raffey Cassidy:
Their thoughts while reading the script’s jarring opening for the first time. How the film uses a lot of long takes where the camera is following the performers from behind. Their perspective on the film’s line about pop music: “I don’t want people to have to think too much, I just want them to feel good.” Why the film makes a point several times to show that Celeste has lost her hotel room key. Balancing complex dance choreography with staying in character.
VOX LUX, A 20th Century Portrait, begins in 1999 when teenage Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives a violent tragedy. After singing at a memorial service, Celeste transforms into a burgeoning pop star with the help of her songwriter sister (Stacy Martin) and talent manager (Jude Law). Celeste’s meteoric rise to fame dovetails with a personal and national loss of innocence, consequently elevating the young powerhouse to a new kind of celebrity: American icon, secular deity, global superstar.
By 2017, adult Celeste (Natalie Portman) is mounting a comeback after a scandalous incident almost derailed her career. Touring in support of her sixth album, a compendium of sci-fi anthems entitled, “Vox Lux,” the indomitable, foul-mouthed pop savior must overcome her personal and familial struggles to navigate motherhood, madness and monolithic fame.
Featuring original songs by Sia, an original score by Scott Walker and a transcendent performance by Natalie Portman – VOX LUX personifies the cult of celebrity and pummels the zeitgeist, it’s an original story about the forces that shape us, as individuals and nations.”
“The Childhood of a Leader” director Brady Corbet’s sophomore effort behind the camera, “Vox Lux,” is a stunning piece of cinema. This hypnotic and impressive drama will shock audiences with its prologue, a horrific scene involving a school shooting that sets the story in motion, and it will also bewitch or bewilder viewers with star Natalie Portman’s phenomenal performance, most notably during a concert sequence that comprises the film’s finale. In between, there are plenty of ideas — arguably too many — for folks to chew over and digest.
Act 1 of the film, entitled “Genesis,” takes place in 2000-2001 when Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives a school shooting and is inspired to write and perform a song at a vigil. Her anthem about anger, violence and grief becomes a hit and she is soon courting a record deal. A mature teenager, she hires a manager (Jude Law), works with the label’s publicist (Jennifer Ehle), and takes dance cues from a choreographer before heading to Stockholm for a performance. This all happens relatively quickly, as Corbet, who employs a handheld camera and speed-motion photography, captures the urgency of the action and the passage of time.
But even as narrator Willem Dafoe explains Celeste’s devotion to God, music, and her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), there seems to be something else at work here. And therein lies the fascinating subtext of “Vox Lux” — it’s a satire and a cautionary tale told in reverse. The film is certainly being ironic when Celeste states, “I don’t want people to think too hard. I just want them to feel good.” Corbet’s film, about the loss of innocence, is neither breezy nor upbeat. It’s a dense, intense film that mirrors Celeste’s never-ending dream of speeding through a tunnel. It throws viewers into a suspended state, a limbo where one is not always sure of what is being shown, but it is impossible to look away. That’s what makes it great.
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Act 2 of the film, “Regenesis,” takes place in 2017, and opens with a shooting on a Croatian beach. The terrorists wear masks like the one Celeste wore during a video she made back in her teens. Now, Celeste is 31 years old and played by Natalie Portman. (In a canny bit of casting, Raffey Cassidy, who played Celeste in Act 1, plays Celeste’s daughter Albertine in Act 2; Stacy Martin plays Eleanor, Celeste’s sister, in both acts).
Portman arrives in the film like a force of nature, tearing into her role with reckless abandon. Portman is so much fun to watch behaving badly that viewers may actually root for her to self-destruct; she is that entertaining. Her Celeste is a motormouth, as seen in a hilarious lunch scene with her daughter in a New York diner where she rants about Eleanor and begs the counter staff to serve her a decent glass wine in a to-go cup. She gets into a fight with the manager who simply wants a photo. The scene shows how quickly the once-mature Celeste had devolved into an entitled egoist, and Portman delights in making a dramatic exit. (She gets another opportunity in her hotel after a fight with her sister.)
However, Portman never makes Celeste a camp figure, despite her character’s silly hair, makeup, and costumes (all of which are appropriate). She plays her press conference scenes like a performance — giving folks the “show” she thinks they want (or expect) from her — by saying reprehensible or incomprehensible things. Celeste, once meant to be a symbol of strength and resilience, now comes across as unconstrained and unbearable. This may be why she is beloved by fans, but not by anyone who knows her.
Corbet deliberately lets viewers connect the dots and determine what to think about Celeste, her politics and celebrity. The film, which is elliptical at times, also can go over-the-top, but his approach challenges and provokes the audience. There are themes of rebirth, discussions about morality, manifestos of radical nihilism, and ideas about coping with trauma, both individually and collectively, that resonate. But Corbet never insults viewers or holds their hand. A scene late in the film — where Celeste, having consumed copious amounts of drugs before her concert, insists on stopping the car and heading out on to a beach to have a moment of silence — may be earnest, or it may be sardonic; viewers will have to decide for themselves.
Moreover, the film’s big finish, an extended concert sequence featuring Celeste, is an absolutely wondrous. Portman gives it her all, gyrating around the stage in a slinky, too tight sparkly bodysuit while expressively singing lyrics like “I’m a private girl in a public world.” (The vapid songs — which are perfectly chosen — are by SIA, and the thumping beat is likely designed to bludgeon viewers). There is a tension as to whether the trainwreck of a celebrity that is Celeste will make it to, or through, her performance. But such is the magic of this spellbinding film; viewers come to care about Celeste, despite her being such a despicable person. Part of that is Portman’s edgy performance, but it is also Corbet’s remarkable achievement.
“Vox Lux” stars Natalie Portman and Jude Law take the WIRED Autocomplete Interview and answer the internet’s most searched questions about themselves. What languages can Natalie Portman speak? What was Jude Law’s first movie? Where did Natalie go to college? Jude and Natalie answer all these questions and more!
Natalie Portman’s performance of “Wrapped Up” from the Vox Lux original motion picture soundtrack featuring original songs written by Sia is out now!
Natalie Portman and Raffey Cassidy’s new film, Vox Lux, follows the rise of aspiring entertainer Celeste, from the ashes of a major national tragedy to pop superstardom. With the film in theaters today, we sat down with Portman and Cassidy about the film, and the demands of their performances.
Source A.V. Club
With its extremes of experience and banal slightness of content, Brady Corbet’s rock-world melodrama “Vox Lux,” portentously labelled “A Twenty-First Century Portrait,” is an exemplary latter-day entry in the realm of cinematic camp. Corbet’s direction is sober, sombre, earnest, restrained; the film is heavy with allusions to historic events, such as the killings at Columbine High School and the 9/11 attacks, which define the movie’s tone and set the plot in motion. In a way, Corbet is dealing with great issues and making a major display of taking them very seriously. Yet the subject of the film is the burden of a young singer’s celebrity, and the incidental subordination of matters of life and death to the story of a rising and falling star renders the film’s heightened tone absurd, unintentionally comedic—all the more so in that the issue that Corbet approaches with the greatest seriousness is fame itself.
The story is divided into three parts; in the first, labelled “Prelude 1999,” Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy), thirteen going on fourteen, a middle-school student in New Brighton, Staten Island, is gravely wounded in a school shooting. She recovers, and in the movie’s second section, “Act I: Genesis 2000-2001,” she and her older sister, Ellie (played by Stacy Martin), write a song, which Celeste performs at a church service. Somehow (in the era before social media) it goes viral, Celeste becomes a teen pop sensation, and, despite her religious background, begins to live it up, culminating in a night in a hotel with a rough-hewn hard rocker.
In the second act, “Regenesis 2017,” Celeste—now played by Natalie Portman—has a teen-age daughter, Albertine (also played by Cassidy), as a result of that one-night stand. This “act” is also launched by a terrorist attack, one in which the attackers wear masks resembling the ones made famous in one of Celeste’s videos. Celeste’s life is in disorder—she is an alcoholic and a drug abuser, and she has been the subject of scandal, after injuring a pedestrian while driving and making racist remarks about the victim. Her “rebirth” depends on Celeste’s coming-home concert to her native neighborhood in Staten Island, where the 1999 shooting took place—and it also involves a reconciliation of sorts with Ellie (still played by Stacy Martin) as well as with Albertine (who has, for the most part, been raised by Ellie). “Vox Lux” illustrates that snarky aphorism that celebrities remain, throughout their lives, the emotional age at which they became famous. But the movie stands the concept on its head, depicting the eternal adolescence of Celeste as both a burden for her family and her entourage (even for herself) and also the wellspring of her success—of her ability to connect with an audience.
What is it that makes a person from a seemingly ordinary background able to create something, with their very presence, that will incite the devotion of millions of people? What’s it like for them to become famous, to face the daily demands of fame? In short, what’s it like to be a brand, to be beloved by millions as an image of oneself, and how does an artist’s public identity correspond with her private life—which may be forced into the spotlight with one false move?
The unrealized attempt to address these questions is, by far, the best thing about “Vox Lux,” even if it’s there only as a sketch. There’s a thread of psychological insight running through the film, the notion of idiosyncrasy, distinctiveness: Celeste is introduced into the film when she alone, among the students in her middle-school class, doesn’t cower from the shooter but stands up and tries to engage him (in prayer, she tells him). Her effort doesn’t dissuade him from shooting her; it only suggests that, even in eighth grade, with no obvious talent that makes her a child of destiny, Celeste is different. Her musical ability is middling at best. Rather, what she displays is, in effect, leadership—standing up to shift and shape a situation, to change it.
Yet Celeste’s gift is a paradoxical one: it’s empathetic but impersonal, a connection that’s more a matter of impulse and desire, and that’s subject to a similar volatility, instability; it remains, ultimately, all about her. It arises from the same impulsiveness as do her rage and aggression. Corbet suggests that Celeste’s destructiveness is born not of her art but of her fame—that it’s entirely a by-product of being wrenched from her home and her family at too young an age and having her self-image distorted by her public image. “Vox Lux” is a coincidental retort to this year’s version of “A Star Is Born.” Bradley Cooper’s film says, in effect: work hard, be good, and your luck will make itself—unless you have the misfortune to have a traumatic background to overcome, in which case it will eventually overtake you. But Corbet’s film could be called, with apologies to Ozu, “A Star Is Born, But . . .”: the transformation of Celeste into a star comes off without a hitch. Rather, her biggest trauma turns out to be fame itself; despite her stable family background and her virtuous intentions, Celeste (a rather on-the-nose starscape name) is overtaken by the mechanisms and the power of celebrity itself.
The thread of insight, thin but strong, makes the unfortunate dramatic incarnation of the film all the more disheartening. From the start, by tying Celeste’s first flush of fame to a historic event of tragic scope; by depicting the Twin Towers as icons of that time and then the new One World Trade Center (the home of The New Yorker’s offices) as an icon of the movie’s present-day section; by depicting another, recent, fictional act of terrorism that (in a heavily messagizing bit of historical feedback) borrows a trope from one of Celeste’s music videos, Corbet replicates the ugly media phenomena that he decries, the banalization of such grave experience through their reproduction in media. The film is narrated in a wanly philosophical and sententious voice-over, which Willem Dafoe delivers in an oracular, seen-it-all voice. (Hard to blame the actor; his tone is that of Corbet’s direction throughout.) “Vox Lux” sinks under the weight of its own bombastic earnestness. Unfortunately, it pulls one of the best modern actresses, Portman, down along with it.
Portman is an actor of contradiction, one of the most dramatically expressive performers of her generation, a true classic movie star: the kind whose tremendous emotional radiance flashes brilliantly even in repose, the kind that depends more upon her mere presence than upon her performance, the kind that could be discovered by a studio talent agent when she was sitting at a luncheonette counter (as Lana Turner actually was). Portman (like Turner) isn’t primarily an actress of dialogue; of course, she performs it fluently, intelligently, expressively, but not spontaneously; the calculation shows. Her voice isn’t her most distinctive instrument. Rather, her speech is like a kind of background music to the singular power of her facial expressions, her gestures, her gaze, her presence. She’s one of the great physical actresses of this era.
Unfortunately, Corbet has Portman do for the role of Celeste what she did for her Oscar-nominated performance in “Jackie”: she takes on an accent—in this case, a stereotypical white working-class Noo Yawk accent. (There’s a whole sidebar to be written about its use as a mark of cinematic authenticity.) Here, Portman channels what seemed, at first, to be the style of Lorraine Bracco, or maybe that of Cyndi Lauper; but when I heard one particular line of dialogue (in which Celeste tells Ellie, “You look like a retard”), the comparison leaped out: intentionally or not, Portman’s performance resembles that of Margot Robbie in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The difference is that Robbie’s performance isn’t a psychological portrait but a character turn, and a comedic performance in a movie that is, also, a comedy (albeit a very serious one). Portman’s turn in “Vox Lux” is nearly as funny, unintentionally, as Robbie’s is by design. Corbet’s ponderous direction allows her only a few moments that reveal, in brief but quietly explosive visual asides (such as one in a mirror, and another on-stage), the art that makes her the star that she is.
Source: The New Yorker