‘Vox Lux,’ A Cautionary Tale About Millennial Celebrity
Pop stars suck, amirite? On its surface, the unsettling meditation Vox Lux trades in the tired calculus that the music industry takes true singer-songwriters and warps their purity into commercial pablum. But surfaces are useful. They reflect, conceal, and protect. They can also crack. Besides, writer-director Brady Corbet isn’t so much interested in superficial psychology as he is in spiritual desolation.
VOX LUX ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Brady Corbet
Written by: Brady Corbet
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle
Running time: 110 min.
Part cautionary tale, part survivalist’s manifesto, Corbet has made this fictional 21st century biopic for, and about Millennials. An eerie portrait of amoral celebrity in this blood-soaked age, Vox Lux shows a generation under assault from a background of nihilistic white noise. How else do you process Columbine? How else do you digest September 11th? You shelter yourself from the abyss with a shield of artifice. But even a human mask bears an imprint of humanity.
In 1999, Christian teen and budding musician Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy) turns a near-death experience into an unlikely hit song. She’s an innocent who grows up too fast, especially when her grimly competent manager (Jude Law) knows exactly how to micromanage a sad-eyed girl into a steely techno sensation. And by 2017, Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) comes off as a twitchy, coked-up imp deflecting personal responsibility for reckless actions with sneering aplomb. That transformation solidifies the price of her Faustian bargain. But her music (Sia contributes the oddly affecting songs) isn’t easily dismissed. This isn’t just candy-colored ephemera. It’s the product of a wounded animal.
A diptych that trades in dualities, Vox Lux loves to mirror and bookend itself. An Act I title card announces “Genesis,” while Act II declares itself “Regenesis.” Cassidy’s dual roles makes her two performances the embodiment of transferred trauma. One terrorist inspires artistry; that artist’s work then becomes the face of another terrorist. History repeats itself, echoes it, then becomes an ouroborosian feedback loop.
Pretentious? Sure, why not. And a bit derivative: Willem Dafoe’s unseen narrator evokes his collaborator Lars von Trier and the director’s tendency to treat troubled people with dispassionate cruelty. But Celeste’s upward trajectory and slide into damnation are oddly hypnotic. Her pop life makes for an absorbing history of violence.