Press: Natalie Portman is a force of nature in intense and stunning “Vox Lux”
Categories Films Press Reviews Vox Lux

Press: Natalie Portman is a force of nature in intense and stunning “Vox Lux”

“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.

Source: Salon

Press: “Vox Lux,” Reviewed: A Tale of Star Power That Misuses Natalie Portman’s Star Power
Categories Films Press Reviews Vox Lux

Press: “Vox Lux,” Reviewed: A Tale of Star Power That Misuses Natalie Portman’s Star Power

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

Press/Review: Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore Go for Broke
Categories Films Press Reviews Vox Lux

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

Press: ‘Vox Lux’ Review: Natalie Portman’s Music Drama Is the Anti-‘A Star Is Born’ — Venice
Categories Films Press Reviews Vox Lux

Press: ‘Vox Lux’ Review: Natalie Portman’s Music Drama Is the Anti-‘A Star Is Born’ — Venice

There was a time when you could barely see a movie without catching a glimpse of Brady Corbet. The actor seemed to be in every arthouse favorite of 2014, with supporting roles in everything from “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Eden” to “Force Majeure” and “While We’re Young,” but he hasn’t so much as made a cameo in the four years since. The reason why: He chose to step behind the camera rather than in front of it, making one of the most impressive debut features in recent memory with 2015’s “The Childhood of a Leader.” Corbet won two prizes at Venice for his haunting look at a future totalitarian’s early years, and returns to the Lido in highly ambitious form with “Vox Lux.”

He didn’t come alone. Natalie Portman stars as the mononymous Celeste, a pop star whose musical stylings were composed by Sia, with a supporting cast led by Jude Law and Stacy Martin. Her name is no coincidence: As explained by the narrator (whose identity remains best left unspoiled), Celeste comes from the Latin word for “heavenly” and, in her case, signifies that her fate may have been written in the stars. This young woman was born for great things, which, it turns out, may only be tangentially related to music.

To call “Vox Lux” a pop-star drama would falsely suggest that it in any way resembles “A Star Is Born” or is at all interested with the music industry, especially when you learn, in its opening minutes, what compels our heroine to start singing in the first place. The film begins in 1999, at which time a 13-year-old Celeste is in music class when a classmate opens fire in her classroom, killing several and leaving her with a spinal injury that will cause her pain for the rest of her days. It’s a horrific sequence, coming out of nowhere and filmed in such a way that puts you closer to the violence than you’d ever want to be; this is Celeste’s life, and for the next two hours it’s also ours. “Vox Lux” is a powerful, haunting film in part because Portman is a powerful, haunting presence — you can’t turn away from her, even if you occasionally want to.

School shootings have loomed large in America’s collective imagination for the last 20 years, and it’s likely no coincidence that this film’s massacre takes place in the same year as Columbine. Corbet, who turned 30 last month, is among the first filmmakers to make a movie exploring the aftermath of such a tragedy who was himself a young student when that era-defining shooting occurred; he’s also the first to convey how these incidents have crept their way into nearly aspect of young people’s lives. Celeste’s career is kickstarted by a mournful ballad she composes after her near-death experience, and “Vox Lux” is more concerned with her post-traumatic stress disorder than how many chart-topping singles she releases.

Raffey Cassidy (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) plays her in these early scenes, with Portman not appearing onscreen for nearly an hour. “That’s what I love about pop music,” she says, shortly before recording her breakthrough single. “I don’t want people to have to think too hard. I just want them to feel good.” Corbet doesn’t share that desire in the slightest, and one shudders to think what CinemaScore this film might receive — it couldn’t be less of a crowdpleaser, and is almost certainly the only movie about a pop star you’ll ever see whose own soundtrack inspires people to stick their fingers in their ears.

Scott Walker’s booming orchestral played an integral role in setting the ominous tone of “The Childhood of a Leader,” and so it’s unsurprising that Corbet would go overtly musical in his follow-up — even if it is surprising that he would collaborate with Sia. By turns discordant and catchy, their contrasting efforts are emblematic of “Vox Lux” as a whole: Celeste is a cross between goth and glam, and Portman holds nothing back in a histrionic performance that sees a damaged woman teetering on the brink of collapse. She shouts, curses, drinks wine from a plastic cup, and snorts who knows what off a table; occasionally she even finds time to perform, but not before being hounded by the press over her many misdeeds. Portman is fearless, going all out in a role that requires nothing less.

Her portion of the film begins with a mass shooting on a Croatian beach, the men responsible wearing masks first made famous by one of Celeste’s music videos. Though she doesn’t feel responsible for the bloodshed, the singer can’t help being reminded of the event that continues to inform, and perhaps even define, her very existence. “Vox Lux” doesn’t find any grand truths in its exploration of the nexus between pop superstardom and terrorism — how the one might inspire the other, how violence on a grand scale might be another way to get one’s name in lights — but that feels less like a failing and more like a reflection of its heroine’s fractured state of mind.

Celeste is described as a “prisoner of a gaudy and untenable present that had reached an extreme in its cycle” by that same narrator, who goes so far as to suggest that her talents may be the result of a deal with the devil she brokered during those moments between life and death. That’s heavy stuff, and Corbet makes you feel its full weight. His film isn’t fully realized, and the writer-director can’t possibly tie such far-flung ideas as Faustian bargains and pop ballads into a fully coherent whole — but “Vox Lux” is so grandly ambitious, so unabashedly its own experience, that it’s impossible to dismiss despite its flaws. You may not want to play it on repeat, but this is a song that demands to be heard at full volume.

Grade: B+

“Vox Lux” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

Source: Indiewire

Press/Review: Vox Lux review – Natalie Portman powers dark portrait of the fame monster
Categories Films Press Reviews Vox Lux

Press/Review: Vox Lux review – Natalie Portman powers dark portrait of the fame monster

A school shooting, a teen pop idol and Portman’s jaded diva raise questions about fame and notoriety in Brady Corbet’s social satire

It’s part satire, part social comment, all fragmented and downright inconclusive. But the biggest hint as to what Brady Corbet’s second feature actually is comes right at the end, as the credits scroll fashionably downwards instead of up. It’s “a 21st-century portrait”, we’re told. This might have been more useful at the beginning, but that’s not this director’s style. As he proved with his debut, the Michael Haneke-esque period drama The Childhood of a Leader – a study of the roots of fascism that seemed baffling when it debuted in Venice two years ago and made more sense three months later with the rise of Donald Trump – Corbet prefers to play the long game, and favours opening a conversation over narrative closure.

Corbet has always been an old head on young shoulders, and it should come as no surprise that his film about the pop world shows the spirit of the Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, for whom Corbet acted in 2011’s Melancholia. Split into chapters, with a dry narration from Willem Dafoe – another Von Trier favourite – Vox Lux charts a journey through recent history, starting in 1999 and ending in 2017. The start date proves immediately significant: in a veiled recreation of the Columbine school massacre, a troubled boy appears at a music lesson, killing the teacher instantly and spraying bullets at the teenage pupils. One girl, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), refuses to be cowed and tries to talk the shooter down. For a second they seem to connect, then more shots are fired, catching Celeste in the neck and leaving a scar that will never heal.

The incident has unexpected repercussions. Recuperating in hospital, Celeste practises her music, tapping away on a keyboard with her sister Eleanor (Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin), who feels she somehow let Celeste down by not being in school that day. At a vigil for the victims, Celeste is unable to speak and instead offers a raw, plaintive, self-penned song. It immediately captures the nation’s mood (becoming, as The Narrator notes with amused disgust, “a hit”) and Celeste is thrown into show business at the age of 14.

Guided by her manager (Jude Law), a scruffy, even seedy-looking character who nevertheless always seems to have has her best interests at heart, Celeste takes the first steps into becoming a teen idol, dabbling with drugs and having a seemingly innocuous affair with a grungey rock star that will turn out to have consequences in the second half. So far, it’s been a freewheeling affair; Celeste and Eleanor’s first trip to Europe is a whirling, speeded-up Super 8 montage (a device Corbet uses throughout, to increasingly darker effect), and the girls are the best of friends. That is, until 2001, when a seismic shift in their private lives is echoed in the unseen aftermath of 9/11, where this particular chapter ends.

You might be wondering where the much-vaunted Natalie Portman figures in all this, and at around the midway point Lux Vox dramatically changes tone. It’s now 14 years later and Celeste is an adult with a teenage daughter (also played by Raffey Cassidy) from that casual fling. The transition is jarring; the meek, curious Celeste is long gone; in her place is a jaded thirtysomething diva, trying to hold on to her pop stardom after a scandal that her manager paid, apparently unsuccessfully, to go away. The colour palette is more aggressive now, and Celeste seems almost entirely transformed – a mash-up of chameleonic Lady Gaga, streetwise Madonna and autotuned Katy Perry – her hair hacked into a rock-chick quiff that will become more sculpted and artificial as the film unfolds.

This Celeste is a woman on the verge of yet another nervous breakdown, and there are hints, possibly unintended, of John Cassavetes’s Opening Night as she embarks on a series of comeback shows, starting in her hometown. Wavering between imperious arrogance and pathetic petulance, Celeste’s faltering confidence is further undermined when a terrorist cell in Europe starts to use part of her trademark iconography – a bejewelled mask – in their operations.

It all suggests that something major is coming, a finale that will finally bring these elements together with a payoff amounting to a sizeable scene or revelation. But Vox Lux is not about to resolve anything. Instead, it seems to be a series of equations, dealing most distinctly with the notion of fame in the modern world. It’s a film that asks, what is fame: promotion, manipulation or hero-worship? Can it really just be the end result of massive popularity? And how do we separate it from notoriety? It’s a good question to ask, even though, as the film readily shows, we’re far from getting the answer.

Source: The Guardian