SSFF REVIEW — “Vox Lux”
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping on crack
Vox Lux is written and directed by Brady Corbet, stars Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, and features narration from Willem Dafoe. It tells a story that begins in 1999 when teenage Celeste survives a violent tragedy. After singing at a memorial service, Celeste transforms into a burgeoning pop star with the help of her songwriter sister and talent manager. Celeste’s meteoric rise to fame elevates the young powerhouse to a new kind of celebrity: American icon. By 2017, adult Celeste is mounting a comeback after a scandalous incident almost derailed her career. Touring in support of her sixth album, a compendium of sci-fi anthems entitled, “Vox Lux,” the indomitable, foul-mouthed pop savior must overcome her personal and familial struggles to navigate motherhood, madness and monolithic fame. Next in our series of SCAD Savannah Film Festival reviews is Vox Lux, which has appropriately been deemed “Dark A Star is Born“. Now, the plot description above may be what Wikipedia and Rotten Tomatoes say this is about, but that’d be a bit misleading. Vox Lux is a quasi-musical, coming of age story about pop star during two very different stages in her life that deals with being a parent, alcoholism, sexuality, loss of and a culture shaped by terrorism, I think! It also, for the most part, is a very entertaining ride featuring a great performance from Portman and exciting direction from Corbet.
Brady Corbet is directing here and although this is his second feature, it has all the signs of a debut written all over it. It’s stylish, sleek, ambitious, unique, and weird, but it’s also messy, jarring and bit underwhelming. Saying Vox Lux is dense is an understatement. There is a lot going on here and Corbet does a great job of keeping it entertaining and digestible. I’m honestly surprised this isn’t an A24 film, considering how much it feels like one. It’s so bizarre and Corbet has such an interesting and distinct tone and perspective that it would fit in with their filmography perfectly. Not everything in Vox Lux sticks the landing, but when it does it’s enthralling, shocking, and darkly funny. Corbet definitely has an interesting voice and I’ll be looking out for whatever he does next.
Corbet also managed to pen a great script here. Vox Lux is divided into three distinct chapters and, honestly, for the first two, it was probably my favorite movie of the year. The dialogue is so natural and the story is so shocking and weird that I couldn’t help but watch in awe. I audibly gasped at the beginning of the film and my jaw remained dropped for most of it. The trouble arises in the third act, where Vox Lux fails to really stick any sort of landing. I’m sure I’ll understand the choice a bit more upon re-watch but regardless of intent, it just fizzles out. Without spoiling anything, the final chapter of Vox Lux is remarkably dull compared to the previous two and maybe I’m missing something, but seemed to not resolve or comment on any of the ideas present in the film. The first two acts where so precise and efficient in their storytelling that I was honestly surprised by its lack of a satisfying or distinct conclusion. It’s doesn’t ruin the film, it just left a sour taste in my mouth.
I’ll get this out of the way, Natalie Portman is incredible. Her performance is so detailed, nuanced and lived in that she really could be a pop star. She’s rough around the edges and not afraid to say what she’s thinking. Jude Law is also a nice addition. I was scared his accent would be jarring but I forgot about it after a while. He’s one of my favorite actors and it’s always nice to see him. I wish Willem Dafoe could narrate my life. His voice is so smooth and warm that he could make anything sound interesting. With this and At Eternity’s Gate, he really stole my heart at the festival. There is a bit of a puzzling choice in terms of casting that many others have pointed out. Raffey Cassidy does a fine job in the film, but she’s playing both young Celeste, and adult Celeste’s daughter. The performance is good and it’s not the fact that she’s playing two characters that bothers me, it’s that, aside from an obvious on the nose connection, that choice doesn’t really service the film in anyway. It also makes scenes with her, Natalie Portman and Stacy Martin very bizarre because Martin is the sister in both time periods. This choice, rather than intrigue the audience, puzzles them and makes scenes distracting. I’m not sure what the thinking behind this decision was but, much like the final chapter, doesn’t ruin the film. it’s just very odd and doesn’t really work.
On a technical level, Vox Lux shines. The score is great. It’s very well done and adds to the weird tone and atmosphere of the film. The color pallet is also great, showering the audience with cold and grim colors and then blasting them with bright neons. The camera work is also great and Corbet is able to pull off some very impressive one-take sequences. These sequences don’t show off how long or impressive they are with wacky camera movement or intense acting, they just feel like a natural part of the film and you almost don’t notice it. If I were to find issue with any technical aspect of the film it would the final act. I don’t want to harp on it too much but is just very lackluster. Without spoiling anything, a particular sequence is hyped up throughout the film and what we get is, for lack of a better word, is really lame. It’s not impressive at all and is a bit awkward. I might be the only one with this harsh of an opinion on the finale of the film, but it really didn’t work for me at all.
So, in short, Vox Lux is a real headscratcher. It’s shocking, interesting, unique, and bizarre. If the ending was stronger I might have been calling this masterpiece. 4/5