Directed By Brady Corbet
Starring – Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy
The Plot – Follows the rise of Celeste from the ashes of a major national tragedy to pop super stardom. The film spans 18 years and traces important cultural moments through her eyes, starting in 1999 and concluding in 2017. In 1999, teenage Celeste (Cassidy) survives a violent tragedy. After singing at a memorial service, Celeste transforms into a burgeoning pop star with the help of her songwriter sister (Stacy Martin) and a talent manager (Law). Celeste’s meteoric rise to fame and concurrent loss of innocence dovetails with a shattering terrorist attack on the nation, elevating the young powerhouse to a new kind of celebrity: American icon, secular deity, global superstar. By 2017, adult Celeste (Portman) is mounting a comeback after a scandalous incident that 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.
Rated R for adult language, some strong violence, and drug content
– From an aesthetic aspect, this might be one of the more grittier and beautiful films of the year. Arronofsky inspired handheld style is on full display, following the movements and directions so tightly of our characters that it never misses a beat. Likewise, the cinematography is cold and callous, outlining a sort of ghost character of its own that follows Celeste every step of the way since this devastating tragedy that has defined her entire life and career. This is subtle exposition in the form of filters, and it’s something that allows the audience to fully grasp the psychological toll of being a sole survivor.
– Finely measured performances everywhere you turn. For the first half of the film, this is easily 16-year-old Raffey Cassidy’s show. Cassidy’s facial registry channels that of a youth who is still trying to grasp why things are the way they are, and feels especially troubled when she’s forced to grow up at such a quick pace at such a very young age. From there, Portman takes the reigns, giving us a glimpse at a personality corrupted by a business of betrayal, with subtle occasional hints at the little girl inside who is still fighting to get out. This isn’t Portman’s best performance, but it might be her most psychologically straining to date. Jude Law is also excellent as Celeste’s uneasy manager, and the chemistry between he and his musical prodigy is something that transcends that of the four films that Law and Portman have acted in together.
– While the musical taste from artist Sia wasn’t my taste of choice, the concert footage and overall spectacle from within dazzle us in a way that truly channels the monster pop icons of the world. Lights, make-up, costumes, and a multitude of angles capture the magnitude of Celeste’s growth as an artist, entertaining thirty thousand fans with a combination of rumbling club tracks and top notch dance choreography to really immerse yourself in the moment. This serves as the only moment when Celeste feels complete without feeling some kind of pain, and it’s clear from the moment she steps on stage that she’s made for the spotlight.
– Gripping social commentary that never relents. The material inside of this screenplay covers a multitude of topics including the insensitivity of turning tragedy to triumph, teenage stardom, and the desire to put sex above music in the order of importance, bringing a bunch of great questions along with each of them. Each of these gives more depth to the unfolding narrative, and etch out that layer of Celeste that helps you understand why she acts the way she does despite not being there to see some of her most trying times. What’s most important is the film never holds back in hitting us with uncomfortable imagery, so if this isn’t your bag, then this simply isn’t the film for you.
– Unique montage sequences. As to where most films cover a wide range of time with a series of footage cuts, the instances of time flash-forward here are literally that: fast-forward footage in the style of VHS tapes that actually takes us through everything at eight times the speed. Even more commendable is that the direction from Corbet during these sequences is so tight and precise that even at an unusual speed we the audience still get enough time and focus to translate what is transpiring on-screen. This is an idea that I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in film with this kind of attention of craft to it, and I commend Corbet for giving us something fresh even after decades of versatile films.
– Creativity with the credit sequence. The long scroll of the expansive name credits that usually just happens at the end of a film actually invades our attention twice during the film. The first of which is about ten minutes into the film, replacing quick cut introduction credits in a strange fashion, that is until I understood its purpose. LIGHT SPOILER ahead. The scroll credits are included here to signify the end of one life and the beginning of another. Once Celeste wakes up, she’s almost an entirely new person from the little girl enjoying school that she was, and this divide felt different in presentational aspects, and only added to the originality of the aesthetics.
– Strange casting choices. This is a film that takes place in two respective timelines, with Raffey obviously playing the younger side of Natalie Portman’s Celeste, but Raffey actually plays two characters in this film, portraying Portman’s daughter in the second half of the film. This is a strange decision for many reasons, but mostly because it’s distracting when the two actresses are on-screen together. As they interact, we start to see how differently and unbelievable their portrayals are for emulating the same character, especially with a Brooklyn accent by Portman that wasn’t there for Raffey when she portrayed Celeste. In addition to this, Celeste’s sister Eleanor (Played by Stacy Martin), doesn’t age or switch actresses during the respective timelines. Neither does Jude Law. So we have a protagonist who changes completely, and two characters who haven’t even changed hairstyles or age in 17 years. Interesting
– Abrupt ending to the narrative. While I mentioned earlier that I appreciated the artistic merit of the concert scenes, I will say that their drowning on forces an unusual ending to the movie that just dropped the anticipation. The last twelve minutes of this movie are concert scenes, so already that concept is far too long, but they come at a time when many questions still require answers, leaving us the audience hanging in the balance. I could’ve used an additional ten minutes after the concert to tie loose ends together and manage to garner some of that momentum that dropped like second week record sales.
– Willam Dafoe’s strange narration. Yep, that’s right: The Green Goblin himself voices a couple of parts during the film. My problem is the usual, in that I don’t appreciate when narration tells us too much instead of shows us, and something else entirely that didn’t fit with the pacing of the storytelling. Dafoe just pops in at the most random of times, and it feels like a violent pause button during some of the more interesting confrontations that the screenplay can muster up. I am a big fan of Willam’s work, but I feel like “Vox Lux” would’ve been best left off of his immense filmography, if only so this story didn’t have so many divides between it that do it zero favors in terms of pacing.
– Uninteresting soundtrack. I have no problem with Sia as a performer, as songs like “Chandelier”, “Titanium”, and “Big Girls Cry” were some of my favorite tracks of their respective years. But her work in this soundtrack just isn’t my taste. The sound mixing is noticeably louder for the music than the vocals, the lyrics lack any kind of complexity, and the hooks completely lack that earworm quality that allows the song to get stuck in your head. Thankfully, there’s only four original songs in the movie, but it doesn’t help when we get each song in its entirety (See negative #2).
My Grade: 6/10 or C