VOX LUX is a curiously frustrating film. In mixing a number of genres, sounds, filmmaking approaches, and themes, there is much to congratulate Brady Corbet’s second feature on. These varying grand ambitions, however, never quite harmonise to full effect, leaving VOX LUX feeling more diminuendo than crescendo as it progresses.
The film centres on two key periods in the life of pop star Celeste – played as a bright-eyed teenager by Raffey Cassidy and a jaded adult by Natalie Portman in two segments titled Genesis and Regenesis (with Cassidy doubling up as Celeste’s daughter Albertine in the second). Opening on a horrific school shooting she is caught up in, the musical tribute young Celeste performs at a memorial service catapults her to fame and musical success, with a manager (Jude Law) and publicist (Jennifer Ehle) to boot. Wrestling with both her private and public persona, persistent scandals, fractured relationships, and a new tragedy echoing her past traumas, we see Celeste and her entourage first mature in this environment and then fast-forward to see the full effect of it.
VOX LUX bears the hallmarks of previous directors Corbet has worked with on an acting basis, and the Lars Von Trier echoes come through particularly strongly thanks to a Willem Dafoe voiceover. Those same attempts to throw an audience off-balance and consider both the truth and artifice of what is put in front of them are present throughout. Following the harrowing opening, a significant chunk of credits play (the reverse of typical convention in both running time placement and literal direction), seemingly implying a memorable unobstructed conclusion later and an upending of expectations. However, this never comes.
“In trying to cover all [the themes it wants to] the film is talking over itself.”
There are both personal and societal themes at play in Corbet’s script. The jarring nature of going from the ambitious and put-together Celeste to her substance-addicted and burnt-out future seems to comment upon both the corrosive effect of fame on the young, but also how society copes with tragedy. Celeste shoots to fame off the back of school shooting, and our time jump happens precisely as the World Trade Center attacks take place. Willem Dafoe more or less explicitly outlines the loss of innocence for Celeste coinciding with the USA just in case we were to miss it.
As a result, the film has many themes it tries to use Celeste as a lightning rod for – personal and national response to (perhaps repeated) tragedy, the effect of fame and pop-culture consumption on all people, and how we perhaps create false idols to soothe our despair at the world. In trying to cover all these the film is talking over itself. A meandering script, which wants to be character-focused but is event-driven, never holds up any one idea as paramount. The script alludes to all of these, particularly how societies consume news and pop culture when Celeste declares the perpetrators of such tragedies might “cease to exist” only if “everyone stopped paying attention”, but notes this would be at the collateral expense of her own fame and notoriety.
“…there [are] wonderful elements to the film. Natalie Portman portrays the insecure arrogance of adult Celeste well, Raffey Cassidy’s double-performance overs an interesting contrast between young Celeste and her daughter…”
That isn’t to say there aren’t wonderful elements to the film. Natalie Portman portrays the insecure arrogance of adult Celeste well, Raffey Cassidy’s double-performance overs an interesting contrast between young Celeste and her daughter, and Scott Walker’s score is wonderful. In particular, the music and shotmaking combine to enormous effect in the aftermath of the film’s opening scene.
VOX LUX makes much noise via Dafoe about the latin roots of Celeste’s name, and it therefore feels apt that its own title doesn’t really directly translate to a meaningful term. The phrase is clearly meant to evoke the idea of “voice of light”, but the result is altogether more murky – not unlike the resulting script and film. In embracing ambiguity the film has sacrificed impact. VOX LUX has many interesting things to say, but doesn’t seem to say them in an interesting or clear way. Obscurum per obscurius.