Review: The Glitzy Inconsistencies of ‘Vox Lux’
The glitz and glamour of the life of a poster is one observed through television screens, newsstand tabloids, and online social media. The commodification and exploitation of stars and their personal lives that is carried out daily by these outlets are the targets of Brady Corbet’s sophomore film, Vox Lux. In today’s climate, it’s easy to see these targets are ripe for deconstruction. Going to the home page of TMZ, E! Online, or another chewing gum site will tell you all you need to know about why a film like this came into being and how its themes resonate today. The grotesque and easily criticizable profiteering of tragedy through the personal life of a pop star is center stage in this four-part drama, but unfortunately, the result is a little befuddled and not deep enough to get at the root of what Vox Lux wants to critique.
After surviving a school shooting when she was thirteen years old, Celeste (played by Natalie Portman as the older iteration and Raffey Cassidy as the younger) is thrust into stardom after writing a successful single in the wake of the tragedy. From there, she navigates the tumultuous world of fame and fortune with her manager (Jude Law), and the drawbacks that accompany it. Plagued by scandals and her own personal demons, Celeste grapples with a world that seeks to exploit her suffering.
Right off the bat, the performances from Portman and Law are stellar. Portman is a whole other persona in this film as she adopts the fragile and demanding characteristics of a superstar drowning in her own world. Everything from her mannerisms to her accent is remarkably executed and dare I say transformative. Law is equally impressive as an exacting manager who gives off an edge of sleaze, providing a great counterpoint to Celeste, especially in the first two acts of the film. These two commendable performances headline the film but are underserved in a movie that doesn’t dive deep enough into their characters, particularly Celeste’s.
The most glaring issue with Vox Lux is how inconsistent it is. When a film is consistent, you tend not to notice because the film is actively disciplining itself to create uniformity, but Vox Lux opts instead to throw in assorted techniques, styles, and choices because it can and not because it should. Kicking it off, the pop music in the film goes on for too long, often resulting in lengthy screen time for Sia’s original songs for the film, rather than meaningful depictions of thematic relevance. The end, in particular, is pretty egregious in how devoid of meaning it is. It’s really kind of just there as the big finale and makes no strong statement about who Celeste is or as a coup de grâce moment. Then, there are the moments where Corbet throws in dashes of art house sensibilities, but not really committing to it, resulting in this weird style that is neither purposeful or aesthetically coherent. We get blurred, drug-infused moments that are sped up, credits that roll backward, a clearly defined act structure a la Moonlight, pretentious but witty narration by Willem Dafoe (which I’d argue creates more defining character moments than the action on screen), odd deviations in style, and so on. It’s like creative inspiration strikes for certain scenes, but there is no commitment to carry through and make it consistent.
Inside all of this is the film’s take on stardom and controversy. The film sets its thematic target on how we treat stars, the events surrounding them, who they are, and how we capitalize on tragedy. Celeste is only flung into stardom because she survived a school shooting. The propulsion she receives from that tragic event parallels the gains the media receives from exploiting travesties in her life. No good deed goes unpunished, and no bad deed goes unnoticed in this world, and I think this is a fascinating notion to dissect. How we treat stars or how we treat disasters and who seeks to gain from it are fascinating concepts, but in the end, it feels as if the film is afraid to really send it to the top, to pursue the deeper causal factors, and to explore the issue for how complex and controversial it really is.
The film builds on the promise of addressing this issue, but by Act III we start to realize how problematic its narrow approach is. Celeste is the focus here because others are gaining from her suffering, but no one else gets dragged into the mud to a problematic degree. The media is one of the players in the profiteering of tragedy, but they’re not given the time of day in the film. Celeste’s sister Eleanor and manager stand to gain from the spoils of her travesty, but they too are kept at arm’s length, always promising deeper development to their initial conflict, but never going anywhere. The whole thing just feels under-baked, and to know that everything was teed up, but never driven home is what is so dissatisfying about the film. The whole finale of the film is Natalie Portman dancing around on stage lip-synching to Sia in a final moment of celebratory release, and it’s all so devoid of preceding conflict and culmination. There was so much more left to accomplish which is the most disappointing thing I can say about something that had so much promise.
At the end of Vox Lux, we get this weird amalgamation of ideas, themes, and styles that don’t congeal into the popstar-drama one had hoped. Everything was right there in front of us, it just couldn’t come together.