Press/Review: Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore Go for Broke

In Vox Lux and Gloria Bell, respectively, a pair of best actresses show what they’re made of.

There’s nothing surprising, exactly, about Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell, at least not if you’ve seen Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria. Gloria Bell is a remake of that great 2013 Chilean film (not a remake of John Cassavetes’s Gloria—that one already got a remake in 1999), about a woman in middle-age, divorced and an empty-nester, who’s struggling to find traction. It’s an almost exact replica, minus the setting (the action has been moved from Santiago to Los Angeles), and it’s equally amiable and sweet and sad. Gloria Bell does have some American movie star lift, though, in the form of a delicate but purposeful Julianne Moore.

Gloria lives a quiet kind of life, working in insurance and tending to her adult children when they’ll let her. She has her small passions, particularly dancing, which she does most often at what appears to be a discotheque for the almost-AARP set. Gloria Bell’s soundtrack is full of disco and easy-listening stuff from the 1970s and ’80s, presumably the music that was popular when Gloria was in her salad days, and Moore slinks and grooves and sings along to these tunes with her usual natural expressiveness.

Though there is something a little self-conscious about Gloria when she dances, maybe because she’s also out to meet men. Twelve years divorced and maybe a little lonely—we can only infer that, as Gloria Bell’s script is sparing with its emotional exposition—Gloria could use some company. She finds that in John Turturro’s Arnold, much more recently divorced and still entangled with his ex-wife and dealing with difficult daughters. As much as there is a traditional plot to Gloria Bell, it’s in its tracking of that relationship, as the two—both laden with, and of course made wiser by, decades of personal history—negotiate their way into each other’s lives.

But really, Gloria Bell is more of a felt film than a strictly narrative one. Lelio weaves some casual visual poetry into the film, bursts of color and motion that briefly hint at something surreal just on this film’s margins. He mostly relies on Moore, though. With good reason! She’s such a precise actress that the most minor of shifts, in tone or pose or expression, communicates a whole internal arc. It’s one she rides all the way to the film’s glorious (heh) close, a moment when Gloria starts finding herself anew in all the fullness of what she already has. Which is to say, herself—her body, her life, her perspective on the world. This is a subtle Moore performance, and yet it still does a lot, offering a kind of permission to singleness that feels generous and kind.

Movies like Gloria Bell tend to be referred to as small. Which makes some sense, given that it’s set in the here and now and doesn’t go for any high drama. But there is expansive emotional terrain being explored here, a landscape of setbacks and disappointments and moments of cautious hope that Moore articulates beautifully. Moore won her long-overdue acting Oscar four years ago, and this is the first role she’s had since that’s allowed her to use the full range of the piercing intelligence that so animates her best work. Moore is a true empath, understanding how much the little details of a character’s life come to bear on the bigger picture. Her work in Gloria Bell is almost therapeutic in all its rich insight. We’re lucky to have her.

Existing on the whole other end of the acting spectrum, but in a good way, is Natalie Portman’s bonkers turn in Brady Corbett’s sophomore feature, Vox Lux. A dark and daring film about a pop star named Celeste whose public identity is forever tethered to a childhood tragedy, Vox Lux is not easy viewing. Indeed, there were many walkouts during the premiere screening in Toronto (at least in the balcony, where people could safely skitter away without the filmmakers seeing).

I can understand why, to an extent. Corbett is an ambitious provocateur, marrying ugliness with filmic beauty in a way that borders close to cruel manipulation. I’m thinking in particular of the film’s opening, which depicts a school shooting with harrowing bluntness. It’s an excruciating scene, and I’m not sure that what follows really earns all that initial torture.

Still, Vox Lux is worth keeping with if only to get to Portman, who shows up about halfway through the film. In the first stretch, young Celeste is played by Raffey Cassidy, as Celeste surfs a surreal wave of viral fame from a memorial service to the beginnings of major music career. She’s shepherded along, with kindness and a faint whiff of creepiness, by Jude Law. (His character is just billed as “the Manager.”) Cassidy is a curious creature, still and watchful with a slightly sinister, dark-eyed stare. I gather Celeste is supposed to be a little unsettling, as she turns what we have to assume is some post-traumatic stress into a quickly intensifying hunger for stardom.

Corbett and his cinematographer Lol Crawley stage some gorgeous and ominous moments in this first half, the film moving with a gliding, Kubrickian menace. There’s a particularly striking sequence, sped-up and grainy, in which we see Celeste and her sidelined sister traveling to Sweden, young teenagers on the make, living a whole riot of adolescence in just a minute or two. (All while Willem Dafoe narrates.) Corbett, whose first feature, The Childhood of a Leader, made a notable festival rumble three years ago, is definitely a talented technical filmmaker. Much of Vox Lux is arresting to look at and listen to (Scott Walker composed the film’s keening score).

It doesn’t come together, though, neither in form nor idea. The commentary Corbett is making on how fame and tragedy intersect, heroes and villains existing on different sides of the same coin, forever in perverse dialogue with one another, is muddled. (So muddled that I could be totally wrong about what Corbett is trying to say.) I appreciate the way he so violently insists that we confront the reality of school shootings—that they are frequent enough to become a cinematic trope, as device-like as a car chase. And yet Vox Lux’s aggression doesn’t push us anywhere profound, or even coherent. It’s a lot of flail with not a lot of payoff.

Then again, enter Natalie Portman. As adult Celeste, Portman immediately makes clear what was not at all apparent in Cassidy’s stiff portrayal of the character: Celeste is a tough-cookie daughter of Staten Island, with a swagger to match her gnawing egomania. Portman strides into the movie with such a burst of broad energy that it feels like she quite literally walked in from another movie. It’s a go-for-broke kind of performance, as full-tilt as her actorly brinkmanship in Jackie, and nearly as successful. Portman’s Celeste is outsize and theatrical, and yet like Moore’s far quieter work, there’s also a lot of specific stuff going on.

As Celeste yaws wildly from rage to drug-addled self-pity to steely straight-talker, Portman steers the performance with a beguiling control. It’s a thrill watching her dive into something like this, continuing her startling and exciting transformation from ingenue to nervy character actress. (At the moment, Vox Lux feels like the third performance in a trilogy, begun with Black Swan and followed-up by Jackie.) I’m sure there are some who think it’s all too much, that it doesn’t fit the context of the movie. On the latter point they’d be kinda right. As for the former, maybe my tolerance for “much” is higher than others, but I love the scale that Portman is working at in Vox Lux. It’s fun and perceptive, a well-observed embodiment of a certain kind of brassy person, encased in fabulous pop star clothes.

Vox Lux ends with an extended concert scene (the song snippets were written by Sia) that goes on for too long and suggests Portman’s dance abilities are perhaps better suited to ballet. She’s still there, though, going hard at this fascinating performance in a movie that can’t quite keep up with her frenzy. Corbett is certainly one to watch, so long as he hones his inquiry and becomes a bit more discerning about his eager creative impulses. Portman, on the other hand? I hope she keeps dancing as fast as she can.

Source: Vanity Fair

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