The new religion of the 21st century? Director Brady Corbet, in his film Vox Lux, would have one believe “the celebrity.” Corbet’s journey to demonstrate such, beginning strongly—but ending vacuously—suffers from finding a coherent method of delivering a strong rebuke of said celebrity culture.
Vox Lux is broken into three acts: “Genesis,” “Regenesis,” and “Finale.” The film opens with narration by Willem Dafoe in a mockumentary style, as home video of a young girl performing streams across the screen. That girl is Celeste, someone from a working-class family and born at the height of the Reagan era. The film, beginning in 1986, then flashes to 1999. Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), sitting in band class, watches as a fellow students shoots her teacher and then shoos herself and her classmates into a corner of their classroom where he opens fire on them. The allusion to Columbine, from the year to the shot of a student lowering himself from a window, makes Celeste into a product of every American touchstone of the late-20th century.
Celeste becomes an overnight celebrity when her and her sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), sing a song at a vigil to the victims of the school shooting. Celeste and Eleanor are especially close, however, their relationship changes through unforeseen circumstances.
Through much of the film’s first half, the lighting and saturation on screen are muted. With the film’s heavy use of eerie strings, the tone merges melodrama and thriller and beckons sinister intent.
Corbet’s early images and themes are strong. Celeste’s rise, from little known shooting victim to pitching demos with her new manager (Jude Law), demonstrates how easily survivors of tragedies can become manufactured celebrities through our need to consume. On the other hand, between having underage sex, taking drugs, and drinking, her early life as a pop star exemplifies the unnatural growth that can occur when fame is suddenly thrust upon the unlikely.
In act II, Vox Lux flashes 16 years into the future. Celete is now 31 years old, with a daughter, Albertine (as played by Cassidy) and an estranged sister. The once little known girl has now become troubled pop star, in the mold of Madonna or Brittney Spears. Natalie Portman plays the now adult Celeste with a heavy New York accent and goes full-throttle as the troubled star, snapping, crying, dancing, and wildly pontificating. While we followed the young Celeste over the course of several months, Portman’s arc occurs over the course of a day when a terrorist group opens fire on a beach wearing masks from one of her music videos. During this day, she also tussles between her distant and frigid relationships with her daughter and sister.
However, Celeste hasn’t just morphed into a self-indulgent pop star. She’s also become an unreliable authority figure, a theme that could have been more explicit. Authority figures aren’t to be trusted in Vox Lux. Celeste’s parents are nowhere to be found. In fact, we never see her father’s face. Her manager is a cog in the music business, who either enables her or seems way over his head. Jude Law is amazing in just about everything he does, and in this low-key effort he finds the nuance between scumbag and protector. The degradation of authority figures makes Celeste into a voice we look to in tragedy, almost like a new religion.
Unfortunately, the theme of celebrity as religion doesn’t resonate. Sure, we look toward celebrities for more answers than our President during tragedies: Just look at Twitter. However, Celeste becomes so cliched as the egomaniacal pop star that the two acts of Vox Lux are disconnected. Between making grand proclamations about pop music, celebrity culture, school shootings, and terrorism, Vox Lux rarely says anything salient about said topics. To a greater extent, Corbet undercuts these themes with an ending that includes a concert, which says nothing about Celeste other than she’s really famous, and is wrapped in a mysticism with no bearing to the Celeste we met at the film’s beginning. The result makes for a film without the hook to deliver its meaning.