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Non-Review Review: Vox Lux

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Vox Lux very brazenly and very openly positions itself as the evil twin of A Star is Born.

Both Vox Lux and A Star is Born are meditations on the idea of fame in contemporary America, particular the effect that it has upon an individual. Effectively the third (or fourth) retelling of a classic Hollywood fairy tale, A Star is Born offers a much more optimistic perspective on how deeply fame is anchored in the American popular consciousness, a story about an individual being seen and elevated because of their unique gifts. Vox Lux is a decidedly more cynical take on that same story, a darker meditation on the corrupting power and toxic cult of fame.

All the glitters…

These are old ideas. Popular culture has grappled with fame and stardom for decades, the push-and-pull around the siren call of celebrity both lauded and dissected over and over and over again. Neither A Star is Born nor Vox Lux have anything especially innovative or insightful to say about the notion of celebrity, nothing that hasn’t been explored or deconstructed or interrogated countless times. Much is made of the idea popstar Celeste as a new voice for the twenty-first century in Vox Lux, but it’s never clear that the film has anything new to say.

That’s not an issue. There is power in reiterating familiar ideas. Vox Lux tells a familiar tale with a strong est of performances and confident narrative style. Perhaps this is enough, in its own wry way. Perhaps Vox Lux is arguing that the bold new voices of the twenty-first century are just repackaging and reheating old ideas with a new energy and new commitment. It might just be the movie’s darkest joke.

Life of Lux-ury.

Vox Lux is the story of pop star Celeste Montgomery. It is structured as a something approach a grim American folk tale, Celeste’s life story inevitably and inexorably tied up in the broader sweep of millennial culture. Vox Lux seems to wonder whether Celeste is a herald of great cultural change, or just swept up in the chaos and madness of the new century. Either way, Celeste becomes an embodiment of popular stardom at the turn of the century. It is a twisted and warped journey, intersecting as it does with cultural traumas like high school shootings and terrorism.

Vox Lux is not a subtle film. The title translates to “voice of light”, a powerful-yet-paradoxical image that ties into various ideas simmering through the text. As her own first name suggests, Celeste is a star. That star is a marker. Celeste is a light in the darkness by which those around her might navigate. It’s never entirely clear whether Celeste is a lighthouse shining out over stormy waters or an angler fish hoping fiendishly to ensnare its prey. There is a sense that Celeste herself does not entirely understand her function, even if she grasps the mechanics of her ascent.

Swan for the money, two for the show…

Written and directed by Brady Corbett, from a story that Corbett derived with Mona Fastvold, Vox Lux is pretentious well past the point of self-parody. This is a film about pop music that makes a point to build a sense of dread through a borderline operatic score from Scott Walker. There are periods of the film that play as extended montages of the New York City skyline set to unsettling background music, suggesting that the city itself might be a monster eager to consume anyone foolish enough to be lured into its maw.

Corbett structures the film as a triptych, with three separate title cards. Given that the final act is given over to a live (and extended) concert performance, this effectively constructs a narrative of two halves. The credits play over the opening scenes, following an establishing sequence. The film frequently transitions between modes, often emulating home video footage during montages designed to deliver rapid-fire exposition. Willem Dafoe provides the voice of an unseen omniscient narrator who exists largely to provide background information as needed.

This all threatens to be too much, suffocating art house indulgence that might confuse form with content. There is something quite wry and provocative about Corbett structuring a critique of the vacuous nature of pop music around the excesses of independent cinema. Vox Lux occasionally seems like it might collapse under its own self-importance, wearing the permanent sneer of a high school student who boasts openly of reading obscure European philosophers while smugly dismissing popular art forms.

Vox Lux narrowly avoids tipping over the edge. The film has a delightfully wry sense of humour that hints at self-awareness of its own excesses and indulgences. Early in the film, the narrator wryly notes of his subject, “In the beginning she was kind and full of grace… and at least she wrote here own lyrics. No one could take that away from her.” The comedy is pitch black, and Corbett struggles a little with the balance. One of the movie’s earliest and grimmest beats finds a high school shooter mildly underwhelmed by his attempted car bomb.

The next stage of human evolution.

There is something endearing in how firmly Vox Lux rejects the very idea of “too much.” The film commits to its perspective and its ideas in a manner that helps undercut some of the awkward self-importance. Natalie Portman does good work as the adult version of Celeste, but the film playfully encourages her to lean into a cartoon “Noo Yawk” accent that is as broad as Broadway. This is a movie in which dreams are promptly rendered as pop music video fantasies that are then replayed as terrorist atrocities.

The first half of Vox Lux is an origin story, although the film might prefer the term “creation myth.” However, everything clicks into place when the movie arrives at what the narrator describes as “a gaudy and unlivable present.” This is a world without meaning, without direction, without purpose. Characters try to find meaning in that world in any way that makes sense, while grappling with the fundamental and paralysing anxiety that nothing makes sense. This is a world in which the lines between terrorists and pop stars blur.

Sister act.

Vox Lux returns time and time again to the idea of popular culture as religion, albeit a religion created with an absence of meaning. “I don’t want people to have to think too hard,” Celeste explains of her musical philosophy. “I just want them to feel good.” Indeed, the climax of the film suggests the appeal of such popular culture, the capacity to lose one’s self and one’s identity in an ambiguous mood and catchy hook without any need for a deeper meaning or ordering principle underpinning it all.

It is not for nothing that Celeste announces her emergence to the world with a pop song performance at a church. While some of Portman’s costuming inevitably evokes Black Swan, the film is positioning her more obviously as a dark angel. At one point, she refers to her fans as her “little angels.” At a press conference following a terror attack conducted using her own iconography, Celeste suggests that the terrorists might want to question their religious beliefs. “They can believe in me. Because I’m the new faith.”

Celeste-ial navigation.

“Do you believe the sh!t you come out with?” her manager asks in the elevator ride after a particularly awkward press conference. The biggest issue with Vox Lux is the creeping sense that between the irony and the self-awareness, it just might. Celeste is presented as a child with no understanding of the material world, but she is presented as a canny study of the mechanics of fame. Celeste is a child who is lost and broken, damaged by fame. However, she is also somebody who has a keener insight than most around her would allow.

Asked about the terrorists who conducted violence in her image, Celeste observes, “If people would stop paying attention to them, they’d cease to exist. So would I, I guess.” She tells her daughter that her power rests not in talent or technique. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Michaelangelo or Mike and Angelo from New Brighton. You don’t need talent. You just need an edge.” Celeste confesses a dream of mass-produced clones marching down a tunnel, perhaps aware of her own status as manufactured object. “You have to trust the process,” he manager warns. “The process works.

Celeste herself lives inside a bubble and an echo chamber. Repeatedly over the course of the film, she complains about hearing her own voice in her head; once in the studio headphones during a recording session and later at a diner that chooses to play her own records as a tribute. It is recursive, a feedback loop. If Celeste did not exist, she would have to be invented. Is the “voice of light” hers? Or does it belong to her songwriter, her sister? Or to her publicist and manager? Or to the public who feel in love with her when they “reclaimed [her grief] as their own”?

There is nothing new in this. Indeed, the film occasionally falls back into the familiar clichés of anti-pop critique. The climax of the film features Celeste performing in front of a giant screen that flashes fascistic instruction to the audience: “TOUCH HER”; “PREY”/“PRAY”; “LOVE.” There is nothing in Vox Lux that will surprise anybody who has thought for long than ten minutes about fame, or consumed a film or television show meditating upon the concept. There is a sense of profundity running through Vox Lux that never feels earned.

Bird of a feather.

To be fair, the film is well-served by its cast. Jude Law and Natalie Portman do very good work, clearly enjoying the opportunity to play archetypes more than characters. However, it is Raffey Cassidy who offers the movie’s breakout performance(s) as the younger version of Celeste and then as Celeste’s daughter Albertine. Cassidy has been a talent to watch for a long time, particularly her recent work in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. However, her work in Vox Lux is incredible to watch. Cassidy brings an incredible combination of assuredness and vulnerability to the role.

Vox Lux pitches itself as a twenty-first century fable, but instead plays a timeless meditation upon one of culture’s old preoccupations. It is well told and fascinating, even if it seems to be singing the same old pop standards.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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