Vox Lux isn’t a movie that pulls any punches. Filmmaker Brady Corbet‘s followup to his 20th Century story, The Childhood of a Leader, shows the horrors of the 21st century through the eyes of fictionalized pop star Celeste Montgomery, a world famous artist and mother living in a world with everyone watching is a true American star — a casualty of both a High School shooting and also possibly the machinery of this nation’s pop culture as well.
With Corbet’s sophomore effort the adventurous filmmaker shows 18 years of a life and a country that’s both intimate and epic. The story opens in 1999 with a 14-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) surviving an attack at a school. The experience inspires her and her loving sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), to compose a song together. When Celeste sings it before an audience in mourning, her music provides catharsis to the victims and the country, catching the eye of an unnamed manager (Jude Law) who sees the potential and/or money in Celeste. The Manager introduces Celeste to a life of pop, cash, and indulgence, perhaps destroying the genuine artist she once was. The Celeste (Natalie Portman) of 2017 is a mother of a teenager (Cassidy, in dual roles) and has the whole world judging her and her mistakes (which as unpleasant or offensive as some of them are, they are nowhere near the bad behavior of better known and more beloved rock stars).
Vox Lux — which is Latin and translates to “voice of light” — authentically captures a specific moment in history, unlike some other timely or “important” films, without telling audiences exactly how to feel or to leave them with some moral. Celeste’s unpredictable journey all started when Corbet returned home from overseas as terrible acts of violence-plagued the countries around the world. “I wrote the movie the year I moved back from America to Europe,” he recently told us, seated next to Portman. “It was written a little bit in reaction to moving back to where I’m from to raise my child. My wife is Norwegian, but we met in America and went back there to raise her the year of the  election, or the year leading up to the election. So these were things that were on my mind.”
With chapter cards and a voiceover from Willem Dafoe, Corbet transitions from one place to the next in the life of the wonderfully expressive Celeste Montgomery, who struggles with addiction, PTSD, and fame. Corbet gave us a more telling description of her, though: “The character is a little like a car that drives really well. It’s got a lot of horsepower and can stop at a dime, and I think it was conceived that way, but it didn’t necessarily mean it could be performed that way.”
Speaking as an actor who’s been directed by Lars von Trier (Melancholia) and Michael Haneke (Funny Games), Corbet was mesmerized by what Portman and the rest of the cast brought to their roles. “To be perfectly honest, with my background as an actor, it’s not a role that I could have played,” he continued. “It is kind of amazing to set these goals that you’re not entirely sure if they’re achievable. It was exhilarating to watch the cast bring it to life, because everyone, not only rose to the challenge but superseded it. It was impressive and made me very proud of everyone because I really didn’t know how technical it was what they were doing.”
Portman (jokingly) disagreed with Corbet, saying he could play the role and easily rock one of the stage outfits. The Oscar-winning star of Jackie and Annihilation and a definite champion of uncompromising visions was drawn to how Celeste “vacillates from being full of shit and deeply insightful and genuine and completely artificial.” She’s a character that will always get a reaction from any audience.
The Stanton Island accent, the swagger, and the leather jacket, 2017 Celeste is quite a character and also a tall order of a role that called for an intensity, a sense of humor and tragedy, choreography, and the charisma of a pop star. “It was great to have this script because it was so specific, and what’s in the film, it’s word-for-word what was written,” the actress said, describing her preparation. “The character was very clear on the page. It was definitely helpful working with a dialect coach extensively before to work on the Stanton Island accent. Whenever you do an accent, you end up going through it so much that the words become the second nature and you can try things while you’re trying the dialect. You can try out different ways of doing it and being physical while you’re doing it, even unconsciously you’re just testing things out. It was interestingly like a rehearsal, but without the other actor, because my dialect coach provided this bouncing board for trying those things. Then, of course, talking to Brady about the character ahead of time, but we didn’t rehearse otherwise.”
Portman breathed all that ferocious life into the pop star in only 10 days. Considering the span of the story and the scale of Vox Lux, the fact Corbet accomplished what he did with only 22 days is almost unbelievable. “It creates an atmosphere of urgency that we must be very, very good and very fast, but I would use 30 or 40 days very well,” he said with a smile, talking about the light speed of the shoot. “The thing is, I expect to make movies like this very quickly. I hope not this quickly again, but I expect to make them quickly, and that’s a part of the trade-off: in order for them to have the scope, and scale, and texture they have, it means the money is going there as opposed to man hours for more time to shoot. It costs roughly $80,000 a day to shoot and roughly $80,000 a week for pre-production. You have a choice to make, which is basically, do we do something very, very ambitious with no net, or do we do something a little mediocre but we all feel a little more safe and comfortable?” With no time for errors or reshoots, Corbet needed to have “A, B, and C solutions for all the things that could go possibly wrong.”
Corbet immerses the audience into Celeste’s life with a series of long takes, as if we’re viewing her as one of her fans from a distance. While some actors don’t always enjoy the technical challenges long takes present, Portman finds them liberating. “Brady created an environment that allowed a lot of freedom, because we were doing most things on one long take, so you could really feel the shape of a scene,” she said. “It also really allows you to do every take differently because you’re not matching to anything you’ve done before because it’s usually just one shot. You have time to do many different versions because you’re not trying to get all this coverage, like, oh God we gotta move on and get the other side. In many ways, that approach allowed a lot of freedom and time on something that was shot in such a short period.”
Perhaps inspired by his background as an actor, Corbet is evidently a giving filmmaker with actors; he wants much more from them than to do exactly what he has in mind. The writer-director wants their uniqueness to shape the character as well. “When the cast shows up, it can be a little frustrating,” he shared, “because sometimes the designer, the cinematographer, and the director have worked it all out without actually considering how it might feel to get from here to here to there to there organically within the rhythm of the text. What I tried to do was have some scenes for me, and some scenes for them, and some that are a little bit in the middle, so that not every day you’re coming in to just serve the vision of the film, but you also get to explore your own curiosities of where a scene and character can go. Hopefully, somewhere in there is where that real collaboration creates something better than either one of you could’ve done without each other.”
Another artist who left her majorly identifiable stamp on the film is Sia, the hit musical artist who penned original songs for Vox Lux, which have a disturbing quality contrasted with Scott Walker‘s unnerving score; it’s as much an audible experience as a visual one. Corbet, personally, didn’t want the lyrics to contain too much meaning or subtext. “The lyrics, to be honest, were less important than it is for most music-driven films, because this film is interesting because of the fact the character is going through so much, and yet her music speaks in generalities and platitudes,” he explained. “You know, most pop music appeals to our general vulnerabilities. Do you feel ugly? Are you sad? Well, I have the song for you. Some of the lyrics, in very specific moments like the song ‘Alive,’ where she’s singing I’m alive, alive, alive, and how perverse it is, and ‘private girl in a public world,’ these things are, of course, really relevant to the story. In general, the songs were chosen and constructed for their rhythm, and pace, and tone, in order to represent pop music in the early aughts as well as EDM influence of pop music of today.”
The raw and delicate world of Vox Lux wouldn’t be what it is without Sia, Portman added: “None of this would be remotely believable if we didn’t have real incredible pop songs in the middle of it. Her music is so incredible, and like Brady was saying, she’s been writing over the past couple of decades the movie covers, so you have stuff that is relevant, stylistically, to the time, which is also really important to give you that journey only music can give where you hear a song and go, ‘Oh, that’s the ’90s.'”
In the end — and considering this a spoiler warning for the end — Celeste delivers a clinical concert performance in her hometown following a terrorist attack overseas. What this performance means to her, her audience and the world only makes Vox Lux a greater mystery as a film. Is Celeste reborn and authentic again? Is the 15-minute performance a cathartic experience for her or the crowd? There are no signs of light for Celeste, but it’s worth noting, her music still has the power to bring people joy whether it’s authentic or not. There is tremendous value in the happiness artists can provide during dark days, which is not something Corbet champions probably like a more conventional narrative would. He presents acts and events more effectively as is.
Vox Lux isn’t a celebration of artistry like the millions of other movies about singers are. It’s not about the magic in creating a piece of work or personal expression at all. There’s little joy in Vox Lux, but how Brady and Portman tell it, it was made with plenty of it. “So, usually, I’m just trying to keep up with everybody,” he concluded. “I’m also fortunate enough to have a cinematographer who operates and is very good. I mean, there’s a scene in the film where we follow Natalie to the stage, there’s a pre-show warmup, she takes a breath and gets on the platform that lifts her up to the stage, and we shot it four times. We had four perfect takes of it, because [DP] Lol Crawley (Four Lions) was so in step with Natalie’s movement and everyone in the frame. He was locked to her, so she could move right or left. It always felt like, ‘Oh my God, he’s about to hit her in the head [with the camera],’ and that moment where it could all fall apart and it doesn’t, for me, that is cinema. You’re capturing sunlight in a box. When choreography, and performance, and light come together like that, it’s really magical.”
Vox Lux is now in theaters.