new movie 'vox lux' is like a much darker 'a star is born'
It's a vital analysis of an industry where young women’s ambitions are exploited.
Imagine Rose McGowan as a jaded pop star singing Sia’s brand of rousing melancholy, and then you’ll get close to the dark charm of Natalie Portman’s latest film, the brutal and archly funny gothic musical-bildungsroman Vox Lux.
Natalie Portman’s Celeste, the film’s popstar and protagonist, is a survivor of a terrifyingly violent and starkly-shot tragedy. An earnestly emotional song of hers, delivered at a vigil, is converted via the dark lens of the mass entertainment industry into what the narrator, voiced by Willem Dafoe, calls “an anthem for the nation”. This could be Celeste’s promising escape from misery, but jarring violins and aggressive drums and a threatening montage of New York’s looming skyscrapers imply otherwise. Celeste is doomed despite her sweet voice and maybe even because of it.
You might think that 2018’s Oscar-tipped A Star is Born had covered this ground. Yet Vox Lux goes so much deeper. In the absence of an expensive Oscars’ campaign, actor-turned-filmmaker Brady Corbet’s second feature carries less weight of expectation. The young Celeste is played by Raffey Cassidy, wearing dark contact lenses and a scowl, the elder Celeste is Natalie Portman, almost unrecognisably husky and vile. She’s a nightmarish, bristling, paranoid vamp of a woman and intensely watchable as she falls apart. Stacy Martin astutely ages 15 or so years playing Celeste’s older, weary sister, songwriter Eleanor. And confirming the young actor's mettle, Cassidy later returns, this time with bright-blue eyes, as Celeste’s frustrated teenage daughter, Albertine. Jude Law plays The Manager, duplicitous and vain a role he’s tended to be typecast in lately (Captain Marvel, The New Pope) for good reason. Combined with Jennifer Ehle as a haughty PR girl, Josie, Dafoe’s paradoxically upbeat narration and original songs from the actual Sia Furler, the story hurtles through a scathing and genuinely felt analysis of what celebrity culture does to its brightest stars.
Those occupying fame’s highest perches, Vox Lux knows, are not grizzly old dudes with jealousy issues like A Star is Born’s Jackson Maine, but young ingenues with ambition and trauma like Celeste. Vox Lux is so hugely about Celeste’s inner-self that it denies names for the influential men in her life. There’s the faceless, absent dad, who reads a newspaper by Celeste’s bedside in hospital; The Manager who won’t stop swearing and making nasty jokes (Josie “couldn’t sell a lifejacket to Natalie Wood”) and The Musician, a creep who preys on her backstage on her first trip to LA.
Portman, Law and Sia are all executive producers on the movie, and doubtless carried their own real life wariness of fame into the shoot. Sia has become iconic for her deliberate anonymity. Law was a witness at the phone hacking trials in 2014, claiming journalists had known his “secret plans” and discovered that a family member had sold stories about him. Both he and Portman have been fiercely protective of their children’s identities as minors. It’s not to say that Bradley Cooper doesn’t have his own difficult experiences with fame, or that this difficulty can be easily quantified, but the character of Jackson only wants to make some random girl from a drag bar famous. Compare this to Celeste, who wishes fame on her own daughter. After telling the paparazzi to hold off from taking photos of herself, Celeste implores Albertine: “You should have let them take a picture of you, you look so beautiful today!” Jackson’s star implodes as it allows Ally’s to come forth, whereas Celeste’s toxicity is contagious and thriving.
Nowhere is this more the case than in her pop music, which she loves. As she tells The Musician: “I don’t want people to have to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.” A searing monologue from Celeste in a diner skewers the music industry completely. “There’s no money in music anymore, it’s all branded content or virtual reality, reality TV. I mean I do a voice for a video game character, for Christ's sake, and I make more money in an afternoon than I do all year on tour”. And while A Star is Born gave us one white American replacing another white American, Vox Lux attests to music’s increasing internationality with a K-pop star nipping at Celeste’s heels. The internet’s impact on the music industry is visible here, too. Entitled idiots demand selfies, Celeste appeals increasingly to the lowest common denominator because “every year my videos get worse and worse but they do better and better”, and The Manager insists that should anyone photograph Celeste while she’s high, they’re “fucking fired”. A Star is Born, in its bid to become a timeless classic, completely omitted popular culture.
By the film’s close, Celeste’s voice, once lauded for its sweet sympathy, has become self-aggrandising and callous. Just like Jackson Maine, she’s delusional, jealous and paranoid. But unlike him, she makes a big, entertaining song and dance of it. Her homecoming performance in a 30,000-seater venue in Staten Island, closes the film and lasts 11 minutes. Natalie Portman, not just Celeste, is a consummate, sequin-scaled pop supremo, replete with a lip-syncing dance-routine, light-show, adoring fanbase and meaningless stage banter. It’s easy to recall the last time she danced for so long in 2010’s Black Swan, an Oscar-winning performance that was embroiled in controversy when Portman’s dance double, Sarah Lane, alleged Portman didn’t do much of her own dancing at all. You get the sense that Portman brings this taste of tall poppy syndrome to her role as Celeste.
"By showing Celeste’s inner life — something never afforded Ally Maine — Vox Lux is a richer tale of stardom and all the tradeoffs made to get and maintain it."
Vox Lux has received mixed reviews and upon its US release it barely troubled the box office. The bitter old Celeste in me says it’s the entertainment industry’s way of telling the film’s 30-year-old director to wait his turn before biting the hand that feeds. Sincerely though, the many narrative devices — chapter headings, shaky home-movie footage, that voiceover from Dafoe, jump-cuts and the sharp and booming music score by Scott Walker, lack coherence. The film also refuses to criticise saccharine, auto-tuned pop music, something which apparently worked for A Star is Born. The sibling rivalry between Celeste and Eleanor had scope to be gnarlier, too, if the older sister wasn’t such a simpering pushover. And is any western audience really ready to watch brutal terror play out in naturalistic scenes of violent shootings that call to mind the Parkland shooting and the 2017 bombing of Ariana Grande’s concert at Manchester Arena?
Ultimately, though, Vox Lux is a vital analysis of yet another industry where young women’s ambitions and vulnerabilities are exploited. A Star is Born confined its demons to one man’s rough upbringing, by contrast, Vox Lux’s near-satirical glower at the entertainment industry allows the demon to fester and grow within our alluring protagonist. In there, it feeds off of all the corruption, envy and infamy that comes her way. By showing Celeste’s inner life — something never afforded Ally Maine, whose frozen forehead, absent mother and continued patience with Jackson’s emotionally abusive behaviour were presented to the audience without explanation — Vox Lux is a richer tale of stardom and all the tradeoffs made to get and maintain it.