Vox Lux is the best cinematic interpretation of Socrate’s famous musing, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” It is a portrait of someone who revels in fleeting, reactionary decisions. The film’s narrative, style, and tone shift and turn in often jarring ways which initially don’t seem to add up. And like its tagline states, it is a portrait of this century so far in all its strange, unclassifiable glory.
We begin in 1999, with the young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) experiencing a tragedy which startles both her and the audience. It’s an expertly executed cold open because it puts us off-balance right from the start. Writer/Director Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader) dares to open his second film with a school shooting in today’s climate, and it certainly pays off artistically. It’s done with enough candor and gravity as to not be exploitative, but with enough of a narrative eye to its main character to let us know her story doesn’t end here.
Celeste and her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) have always had musical inclinations and aspirations, and after a stint recovering from her injury, Celeste sings a song they write about the event on national television. This catapults her into the spotlight at 14, as her new manager (Jude Law) struggles to make the confident young firebrand understand the enormity of the journey she’s taking.
By 2017, Celeste (Natalie Portman) is an international pop icon who’s already accrued multiple scandals. Her comeback tour and new album is a way of putting those scandals behind her, but a new tragedy with which her iconography is associated nips at her spiky elevator heels.
It’s worth noting that both distinctive halves of the film don’t attempt to cover huge swaths of time. This means that Portman’s adult Celeste seems even more abrasive and crude (if that’s even possible) than she might otherwise appear had we seen the history in between. I think this builds wisely on Corbet’s thesis of historical reckoning. Whereas the chapter on Celeste’s youth is very tightly focused on her internal, emotional motivation, the closest we get to the adult Celeste is little more than what might be covered on an ‘all-access, behind-the-stage’ sort of documentary.
We may see a semi-conclusion of emotional threads with her daughter (also played by Raffey Cassidy), manager, and sister, but for all her bravado, Celeste’s true feelings often seem guarded and distant, as does a lot of the filmmaking. That’s not a bad thing at all in this case, because what Corbet appears to be doing is commenting on the unknowable, wacky ride that the twenty-first century so far has been. Celeste has about as many ups and downs as the American news cycle.
Portman and Cassidy are both excellent at convincing us of the layers of this character, and thus, the layers of meaning lurking beneath the surface of a film that’s unapologetically arch. It’s a big swing Corbet takes here, but his cast and crew are more than up to the task. For my money, it’s one of the best cinematic “Hail Mary” passes ever.
Vox Lux is destined to be a cult classic among cinephiles. It’s not going to please everyone, nor is it interested in doing so. It’s a dedicated character study committed to saying a lot in a brief space of time. There’s so much in it to process and sort out, but it’s also content to leave you jamming with Celeste until the break of dawn.