Vox Lux ( 2018 )

★★★   |   Sept. 16, 2018

Voice of Light is the literal translation of the title of Brady Corbett's new movie, starring both Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman as Celeste, a pop star who finds fame through tragedy at a young age. It's Corbett's second full feature (after Childhood of a Leader) after making his name as an actor in movies such as Funny Games and Mysterious Skin.

A tragic school shooting leaves Celeste with a spinal injury and mental trauma that will plague her throughout her life, but which also propels her into stardom. She, together with her sister, writes a song to commemorate the victims, and captures the mood of the nation. Jude Law steps in as her manager to capitalise on her brief fame and turn her into a true pop star. We follow her as she and her sister take to the road with him, and are forced to grow up quickly in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. It's a long shot, the producers and executives tell Celeste, but she knows this, and is determined to succeed. We jump forward to 2017, where we learn that the now adult Celeste has made it as a star, but at a cost. She is struggling with drug and alcohol addiction and has grown estranged from her sister. She had a daughter not long after we left her, who is now the same age she was then (and also played by Cassidy). A shooting in Croatia, where masks from her music video are worn, threatens to derail her comeback from a recent scandal, and to reopen old wounds. 

Vox Lux ultimately deals with the transition from the pious young girl we see in the first part, to a deeply damaged and self-destructive  star. The structure of the movie is heavily stylised, split into a prelude, two acts, and a finale, and narrated throughout by William Dafoe. The prelude deals with the genesis of Celeste, the school shooting, while the middle two acts deal with the early and later part of her life. The finale is a kind of redemption for her, allowing us to step back from seeing her as the broken, damaged human she has become, and see her as a star.

The movie is at its best when it turns on the style, and features some superb sequences, along with a haunting score by Scott Walker and original songs by Sia. However, it does feel at times more style than substance. The narrative structure is somewhat erratic, and a number of important plot points are left to Dafoe to explicitly spell out. Portman is excellent as the adult Celeste, but the transition between her in the two acts, while a central point of the movie, seems a bit too extreme to be believable. Jude Law's mentor is a constant from Celeste's early beginnings to the adult we see in 2017, but he seems rather underused, and ultimately rather incidental to the plot.

Vox Lux, for its shortcomings, is a movie that sticks in the memory, and will find an audience. It's a fascinating character study, and a critique of fame and the culture of worship. It's a tale of personal and collective trauma, which Celeste never overcomes, and which ultimately consumes her.

Directed by
Brady Corbet
Starring
Natalie Portman
Jude Law
Stacy Martin
Jennifer Ehle
Raffey Cassidy
Runtime: 112 minutes
Vox Lux (2018) on IMDb