Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux is the sophomoric brain child of a promising, inventive, and technically savvy arthouse writer/director whose roots as an actor run deep enough in Hollywood to secure him the supreme talent of Natalie Portman, Jude Law, and Willem Dafoe (as narrator). It has an all-star production squad made up of producers who worked on Carol (2015), Happiness (1998), Nightcrawler (2014), Drive (2011), First Reformed (2018), 21 Grams (2003), A Single Man (2009), and many more (not to mention a rare co-producer credit for Cassandra Kulukundis, the casting director magician behind every Paul Thomas Anderson movie since Magnolia).
It is one of three narrative features ever scored by the brilliant experimental pop icon of over 50 years, Scott Walker (the first was Leos Carax’s Pola X, the second was Corbet’s first feature, Childhood of a Leader). It was cut by newcomer editing savant Matthew Hannam (Enemy, James White, Swiss Army Man, Wildlife). The trailer makes it clear that Lol Crawley (Here, Childhood of a Leader, 45 Years) exquisitely photographed the film. The promise of production design by Sam Lisenco, the mind behind Frances Ha (2012) and Good Time (2017), is tremendous.
This might seem like personnel accreditation overkill, but it’s not for nothing. It is the immaculate combination of every experienced and original player that put this film together that magnetizes premature appreciation from film lovers. You could go through every position down to the visual effects coordinators and additional 2nd assistant directors and find that this is an expertly assembled team of filmmakers whose average age is well below 50 and all the more enticing for it. To everyone who doesn’t excavate these details, it’s a vehicle for Portman, but to be honest, it really isn’t. You cannot count on conventions with Corbet. Vox Lux is New Indiewood Cinema.
The film opens in a situation that, for the sake of spoilers, I’d rather not detail. The overly simplified and consequently mysterious official synopsis of the film describes it as “an unusual set of circumstances.” It was the shock factor of that seemingly mundane set of circumstances that gutted me with the screenplay’s relevance and originality in the opening sequence. Soon after said sequence, we start spending nights with a teenage girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) as she learns to sing the music written by her dear sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin). Before long, the music is nationally known and Celeste and Eleanor become a performer/songwriter duo signing the kind of recording contracts that make international exploration a pocket-change affair.
Jude Law plays “The Manager,” a no-bullshit pop artist manager with a sailor’s mouth who loves to party, but is surprisingly trustworthy, caring, and humane at the same time. He has a kind way with Celeste, like she’s his daughter, never trying to swindle or milk her or Eleanor for their last drop of mass appeal. We follow Celeste as she rises in her teens for the first half of the film. Corbet lets us in a little more on who she is with each scene. Throughout, she has a strange countenance. Half of it is made of steel and the other half of pure vulnerability, the latter of which emerges with feral tendencies in the older version of Celeste (Natalie Portman).
We meet Portman’s Celeste in her mid-30s in 2018. Her teenage daughter Albertine is played by Cassidy (who is amazing in both roles), as well—a terrific casting move that constantly reminds us who Portman’s older Celeste grew from. And it’s a reminder we need because the calm, patient, and appreciative Celeste we just watched rise in her teens is now a jaded, frustrated, strung out alcoholic pop star selling out stadiums and scoffing at the tedium of the PR responsibilities laid on her by her publicist Josie (Jennifer Ehle). This second half primarily takes place in a hotel prior to a press conference Celeste must tend to. Always donning her staple choker, Celeste waltzes around in her leather and chrome like she owns everything she looks at. The rest of the story unfolds in heavily charged conversations with her daughter, sister, The Manager, and ravenous journalists until we are finally on stage with Celeste for a high-production performance.
Everything Corbet envisions here is radiant. The format of the opening credits, chapter-by-chapter title cards, sporadic audio-visual tricks, and overall narrative development of the decade-sweeping story. His choice to lean the film on Cassidy opposed to Portman is unexpected yet wise. Portman’s half lacks something significant. It’s never stodgy, but at times it feels like the crucial socio-political commentary of the first half has dissolved into nothing more than beautifully adorned, masterfully executed fluff. It’s so easy to appreciate, but so hard to emotionally dig into. One must wonder if Corbet’s clear adoration for telling stories of epic proportion (see: Childhood of a Leader and his next film The Brutalist, which follows an architect working on his masterpiece for decades) is more like an addiction—one that chips away at the depth of the latter half of his films. But at the least, the luring potential that Dafoe will break in with another poetic excerpt of Celeste’s secret history and inner-workings always keeps it minimally engaging.
A friend told me, “I just might not get it. Or it doesn’t get me.” It’s no surprise the film elicits this reaction from any of us who take it seriously. There’s something incomplete about it, and I don’t mean technically. It passes with flying colors on every technical level. No, it’s emotional or thematic or theoretical or something along those lines. Are we, the viewers, missing something? Or is Corbet missing us where we’re at? Is it over our heads? Or maybe it numbs us too early on? Is it what Stanley Cavell would call an “automatism,” a new creation or form in cinema that we aren’t yet adapted to? Or maybe nobody is missing anything. Maybe this is a rare case of time-sensitivity in which we are all a little too stunned, but will be singing Vox Lux’s praises in a mere year or ten. Some films do that, you know. They confuse and disturb and delight all at once only to reveal their grand eloquence further down the line. But usually it just turns out that they’re merely good, not great.