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Review by William Connor Devlin
"That's the thing about pop music," a young Celeste muses, "I don't want people to have to think too hard, I just want them to feel good."
And yet, that line of thinking is a trap, a great deception that allows the artist to pull the wool over the audience's eyes. Young Celeste, after all, has a mission of her own. While her listeners might not have to think, everything she does is calculated. Her life is owed, and she must do as her "savior" demands, even in something so absurd as making pop music.
Brady Corbet's sophomore feature is one of last year's best, and it was sadly undervalued upon release, probably less because of its quality and more because of its unfortunate release date. It's a film of great risk and provocation, daring and creative on a level that many of last year's releases wouldn't have dared. Vox Lux is often just as thunderingly obvious as it is insidiously pensive, but Corbet has thoughts about celebrity culture, sensationalism, and even pop music, and the yarn he strings together concerning those strands is incredibly harrowing and damning. Even the audience becomes swept up in Corbet's web by the time the film ends with an extended concert sequence.
On first flush, Vox Lux seems pretty straightforward, even a little understated. It's a character piece, observing a singer, Celeste, when she was first a teenager wracked by a horrible tragedy that thrust her into the spotlight, and then later as an adult, a mere, cold echo of that former child who has become a monster. There's a chilly distinction between Celeste of the past and Celeste of the present, to the point where it feels like they couldn't possibly be the same character. Corbet is clearly critiquing the fame machine, which swallows up Celeste and spits her out as a caricature pretending to be human all those years later, and that's certainly a valid interpretation. But going deeper, there's something extremely spiritual and mystifying about Corbet's film, which initially might play like a fairytale before it flirts with being a Biblical parable in the most frightening way.
As a courtesy, this is where I'll warn away anybody who might want to first watch the film before reading an analysis about it. This is a film that deserves to be seen with fresh eyes and without much knowledge about it. The rest of this essay will be discussing major, important plot points at length in order to provide somewhat of a detailed analysis. Spoiler police, you've been warned.
When I first entered the theater to see Vox Lux, I had only the slightest idea of what I'd be getting myself into. About ten minutes later, shaken to my core, I wasn't sure what I'd really signed up for.
The film begins with a harrowing school shooting, filmed with such a cold detachment that it's suffocating. Given current events and the horrifying surge of mass shootings, Vox Lux immediately shows that its story and filmmaking are drawing directly, and uncomfortably, from a real sense of our world right now. Teenage Celeste (an incredible Raffey Cassidy) survives the shooting. We are never told if she's the only survivor, but the film strongly implies it, both in the way the plot unfolds and in how Cassidy portrays Celeste's trauma following the event. With help from her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin, ably playing both the past and present versions of the character), Celeste creates an ode to the victims of the shooting, a song called "Wrapped Up," which she performs at a vigil for the fallen.
And then the film does something unexpected. It leaps forward in time, only by a bit, immediately bringing us to the point where teenage Celeste started becoming a pop star under the tutelage of the nameless Manager (Jude Law). The film's narrator (Willem Dafoe) proposes that Celeste's leap to fame was entirely circumstantial. Eventually, the film jumps forward in time, and the second half of the narrative explores what happened to Celeste after she became a famous superstar. Adult Celeste (Natalie Portman, giving one of her most evocative performances) is not the same, innocent, traumatized girl. She's snarky, mean, and has poor relationships with both her sister Ellie and her daughter Albertine (Cassidy, in a purposeful dual role). Wherever Celeste goes, she brings a storm. Everybody is swept up by her, consumed even. But for all her inhumanity, when Celeste is on stage, she remembers her mission, and she gives one hell of a show.
Vox Lux's narrative is purposefully diffuse. It's a portrait of an individual's life, combing over only particularly important bits. Sometimes its frustrating that the film doesn't always feel connective between the two timelines, but at the same time, that's part of the abject horror of Corbet's "Twenty-First Century Portrait." Who we are one minute and who we are the next is entirely subjective, and given the great, disturbing trauma that Celeste endured, it's no surprise that turning to pop music and being swallowed up by the fame machine was the right way to heal those wounds.
In fact, those wounds are permanent. Celeste is scarred by a bullet wound, one that affects her spine. She has to wear something around her neck at all times to keep it out of sight, and the imagery feels very Frankenstein's monster, in the sense that Celeste is all patched up and hardly held together. It's also extremely clear that she has never moved on from the incident as an adult, but instead of clinging to that tragedy as if it frightened her, she uses it as an excuse for her terrible behavior. When addressing a reporter who asks her about a controversial incident where Celeste not only hit a man with her car while inebriated but also showered him with racist slurs, Celeste dodges the answer by explaining the types of spinal wounds and how they affect people, thus revealing that she doesn't believe she's accountable for her actions. Trauma is now a crutch. Celeste isn't sorry for the things she does.
In fact... maybe she does them on purpose.
Vox Lux keeps its biggest secret from the audience until the final moments. In a fell swoop, one proclamation from the narrator completely re-contextualizes the entire film. During the final voice over, the narrator reveals that when Celeste was shot, she went to a place in-between, filled with an explosion of colors. There, she met the devil, who offered her back her life in exchange for something: Celeste is to become a musician. This accounts for Celeste's miraculous leap into showbiz from such a mawkish beginning. She is an envoy of the devil. Vox Lux suddenly goes from being a greek tragedy of sorts and becomes a Biblically-inspired tale about what the Antichrist might look like in the twenty-first century. Why a pop star? Because that way, she can reach more people with her "mindless music." Suddenly, the ending, where everyone, including Ellie and Albertine, are swept up in Celeste's performance becomes that much more disturbing once you realize they've been swayed by the devil.
Certainly, knowing this reveals volumes about Celeste's actions throughout the film. In an early scene, right after the shooting, Celeste horrifiedly tells Ellie that she's just done something horrible. The look of fear and disturbance on Celeste's face in the ambulance has less to do with the shooting and more to do with the unbreakable deal she's just made with Satan, who is embodied here as the omnipotent narrator. Even the lyrics to "Wrapped Up" become less an ode to those who perished at the school than a thankful cry to Celeste's "savior." Given all the chaos that Celeste's very being creates, it's not surprising that she is the Antichrist. At one point, as she throws a drug-induced temper tantrum, Celeste bemoans that people don't treat her like a person. But she isn't one. She's a hollowed shell, sent on a mission and stripped of her humanity so that she can complete it. And a poor fate possibly awaits Albertine. It's not a coincidence that Cassidy plays her in a dual role. Earlier, teenage Celeste speaks of a terrifying dream in which she sends clones or copies of herself down a never ending tunnel. None of them survive. And yet she keeps going and keeps sending more. If Celeste cannot complete her mission, then Albertine may well become the next vessel.
That's certainly one way to look at the film, although it's not the only way. Alongside its spiritual exploration, the film has plenty to say about sensationalism in the media, and how it ties fame to terrorism. Celeste's meteoric rise to stardom happens at the turn of the century, explicitly wrapped around both a school shooting and the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. The media is also the reason that Celeste attains such a stature as a singer. Were she just anybody else, Celeste would not have been successful. But because she was the victim of tragedy, Celeste is able to leverage that to great and horrible effect. It feels like a horrible misstep. Not only will Celeste's wounds never be properly healed, but the world has just made a product out of something traumatic, as if it erases the horror of what transpired. More chilling is the scene in the present where terrorists don masks from one of Celeste's music videos and attack a beach full of vacationers with automatic weapons. This is where Corbet explicitly ties together the idea that both pop stars and terrorists thrive off the same level of attention. Celeste, in a press conference, even admits that if people stopped giving her attention then her career would cease to exist. So are terrorists given a platform for their wicked work as a result of the attention we give to them? Does evil still exist even if we choose to refuse it our attention? The film never answers. It doesn't have to.
It would be remiss to exclude a brief analysis of the music in the film. Singer/writer/producer/superstar Sia both produces and writes the music for the film, and she's an inspired choice. Sia worked in the industry for a long time as a writer and producer before she donned her wigs and took center stage, and so her knowledge of the pop genre throughout the 21st century is invaluably ingrained into the ten pop songs she crafted for the film. They're an entirely vapid brood of musical maladies, but there's something really kind of disturbing about how catchy they all are. "Wrapped Up" revealed itself as a worship song for Celeste's savior, but the other songs are purposefully devoid of meaning ("I don't want people to think too hard, I just want them to feel good") even though they're undeniably catchy. The poppy, effervescent musical numbers contrast starkly with Scott Walker's grim, portentous score that's every bit as unsettling as it is mystical. It's clear that Corbet wants us to be made uncomfortable by all the wildly opposing styles. His gamble works.
This is all just scratching the surface. The most compelling thing about Vox Lux is how visceral of an experience it is. Although it's not a subtle film by any stretch, under the surface of it all, there's a lot to unpack. Corbet wants the audience to be disoriented and maybe even angry, and with good reason. It's a bit of a travesty that Vox Lux was not more warmly received or widely seen when it was released last month. Its willingness to go for broke is deeply admirable, and the cascade of indelible imagery presented here is undeniably powerful. It's much better than A Star is Born, which looked at celebrity culture and pop music through such a mawkish lens that never took full advantage of its melodramatic aspirations. Vox Lux is like a hammer, not so much hitting its targets with precision, but with blunt force. And that makes the moniker "A Twenty-First Century Portrait" apropos indeed.
- Release DateDecember 7, 2018