HomeMoviesVox Lux: A Wild Ride Through Pop Stardom

Vox Lux: A Wild Ride Through Pop Stardom

Von Lux Natalie Portman
Photo Credit: Bold Films

Vox Lux is a movie about pop stars. It is also a movie that opens with a startling act of violence, and announces its second act with an equally disturbing moment that you wouldn’t expect in a film of this kind. If you walk away from this movie with anything, it should be that there is nothing quite like it.

Brady Corbet’s bizarre pop odyssey begins in 1999, when a teen girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is the sole survivor of a school shooting. She channels her grief into a song and, before she knows it, the video becomes a sensation, landing her a record deal and a foul-mouthed manager (Jude Law). The story of her burgeoning career is immediately followed by a second act, in which a grown Celeste (Natalie Portman) plots her comeback tour in the face of a similarly brutal act of violence that is tangentially connected to her music.

What is Corbet trying to say by beginning this film’s two halves with such disturbing moments? It’s hard to know. There is a lot being thrown at the audience here: musings on what it means to be a pop star in the 21st century, dysfunctional family drama, dark comedy about show business, and a concert sequence that feels ripped out of a Demme documentary. The movie is loud, weird, and uncompromising in a way that only young directors can pull off, and mileage will vary from viewer to viewer when it comes to forming an opinion on the finished product.

Perhaps the movie’s most divisive element is its portrayal of the music industry—particularly female pop stardom. The film’s overall take on the genre definitely seems negative, which is pretty reductive since, perhaps more than ever, the closest comparisons to Celeste are living through fascinating chapters of their careers. The movie’s music, composed by Sia, is written in a way that can only be interpreted as “intentionally mediocre” — they certainly call to mind Top 40 hits of today, with Celeste’s early music being genuinely catchy, and her later singles being rather annoying. In a vacuum, this is a really interesting, innovative way to tell the story of a fictional pop star; it’s rare that the quality of an original song suffers for the sake of the story’s realism. But, movies aren’t released in a vacuum, and some of the scenes depicting Celeste’s career come off as a bit condescending.

The film is far more interesting when it explores how violence influenced Celeste’s career — or even her life in general. Corbet is only 30 years old — he was not even a teenager when Columbine, the shooting that the film’s opening moment clearly evokes, took place. This is one of the first instances we’ve seen where a filmmaker raised in violent times is explicitly commenting on them through art. And his statement seems to be that we’re all just living in the madness.

Celeste’s art and career is informed by fictional acts of terrorism, but real traumatic events from our history are mentioned, and even kick-start key plot elements. While Corbet, unfortunately, never makes his thesis entirely clear (and even has it a bit confused via unnecessary narration by Willem Dafoe) the only takeaway that makes sense to me is that we’re living in a time where everything we do is informed by the intense hostility around us, and that we can’t escape the violent world we’re living in. That’s a fascinating message and, as a member of Corbet’s generation, one that I can actually sympathize with. It would be nice to have it a bit clearer though, especially since the film is clouded by a lot of noise.

But then there’s Portman, who almost single-handedly elevates the film to must-see status. Portman is one of our great technical actors; she doesn’t disappear into her roles, and that’s OK. We can see the mechanisms moving in her head, and understand how deeply invested she is in the character she’s playing. More often than not, her performances offer theatrical acting at its finest. And, on the rare occasion she’s asked to camp it up, she soars. Her work here is perhaps her campiest to date.

While not as finely tuned as her stunning work in Jackie, Portman is absolutely hypnotic from the moment she walks onscreen, turning Celeste into a strange hybrid of a Staten Island mobster and a starry eyed ingenue. Everything about her performance works, and while she doesn’t appear until an hour into the movie, she’s all you’ll think about once the credits role.

And, for all the film’s odd narrative choices, it does remain consistently absorbing from start to end. Even when Corbet’s camera turns to violence, he keeps the movie magnetic and completely engrossing, somehow selling some very bizarre plot developments and off-putting flourishes. As he matures as both a man and a filmmaker, a great movie is bound to follow.

For now, we’re left with a movie that’s — interesting. And fairly good! But also quite bizarre and not exactly welcoming to a re-watch. Portman, however, can rest easy knowing she’s one of the best in her class, with another wonderful character to add to her filmography.

Rating: 6/10

Von Lux is now playing in select theaters.


Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor is the TV editor at The Pop Break, along with being one of the site's awards show experts. When he's not at the nearest movie theater, he can be found bingeing the latest Netflix series, listening to synth pop, or updating his Oscar predictions. A Rutgers grad, he also works in academic publishing. Follow him on Twitter @MattNotMatthew1.

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