If you think the 21st century seems like it’s on a slow-motion descent into hell, you’re not alone. But you may not be having as much fun with it as Vox Lux, Brady Corbet’s decadent fable that views modern pop culture as the ultimate reflection of our values: vain, corrosive, and also gloriously vapid. During a time when a reality television star disastrously fails to lead, reality itself becomes a fertile stage for satire so acerbic that it will knowingly put Natalie Portman in Black Swan-inspired makeup as the idol of her age. Even our monuments are diluted remixes of something once purer.
The antithesis of the other pop music heavy hitter that took a bow at the Toronto International Film Festival, A Star is Born, the Portman-led Vox Lux is blanketed in the kind of pitch black nihilism that remains evermore elusive in cinema. As an experience likely too twisted for Academy Award voters, it makes a striking contrast with the Lady Gaga film that reinvents Hollywood’s favorite industry fairy tale into an elegiac romance about self-discovery in the music industry. By contrast, Vox Lox suggests nothing can go through the prism of modern industry and come out the other side with a sense of discovery or enlightenment. Not when sweetness or sincerity must be reduced to 280 characters or a three-minute club beat.
Suggesting its heroine Celeste is the epitome of the Millennial generation and the century they’ve inherited, a young girl’s endearing life story is reduced to four acts from childhood to pop goddess diva. The prelude, which sets a brutal tone for the macabre parable, recounts with horrifying clarity the day that Celeste’s childhood died. Born in working class Staten Island in 1986, young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is barely a teenager in ‘99 when she becomes the lone survivor of a brutal school shooting. Set in the same year as Columbine, and back when this wasn’t a weekly occurrence, this fictional account feels grotesquely real, as Celeste tries to convince the boy who just gunned down her teacher to pray with her. He shoots her and a friend next.
If this seems like a grim way to begin a dance tune, it is. Rushed to the ambulance while the picture’s ending credits play in the first several minutes, Celeste and her era’s last bit of innocence are on life support before the new millennium has even arrived. Still, she’s a lone survivor and her sincere songwriting tribute to dead classmates catapults her to national celebrity, and her ballad for the fallen becomes the anthem of a nation. At only 14-years-old she has a number one hit. The film establishes this years-long evolution, from survivor to pop star, via extended montages and a cool, disaffected voiceover narration provided by Willem Dafoe in the tenor of his Wes Anderson work, and then a single day of her adulthood. Thus splitting the running time equally between Jaffey and Portman as Celeste, we view the gradual shedding of adolescence and the then stark fruit of 18 years in a public spotlight that’s as equally distracted by war, terrorism, and social media as it is via Celeste’s happy melodies.
Vox Lux’s pessimism might be too thick for some, but it offers a richly bold flavor for those willing to sample its tempo. This is in no small part due to how darkly humorous the whole endeavor is. With an attention-grabbing screenplay from its writer-director, Lux unveils a major talent in Corbet. His is a sardonic, gallows affectation that can snapshot lifestyles as unusually specific as media stardom (and the press who covers them), as well as having a penchant for grandiose macro assertions about the absurdity they perpetuate. All of this runs the risk of veering toward the pretentious or even old-fashioned in its judgement, but Corbet skirts that line by maintaining a detached distance from the proceedings. Visually preferring a wide, empirical separation from his characters, while still having them aware in the text of the farcical nature of their lives, the film’s aesthetic enjoys enough style to cross its high-wire act into the realm of sumptuous wickedness.
While only appearing in half the movie, Portman’s version of an exhausted but chipper diva is a fearsome creation. More than just self-obsessed, her egocentrism places her as the sun, moon, and stars, with those who put her in the sky nothing than the dirt long forgotten beneath her elevated feet. This can include Jude Law, who goes from her on-the-road manager and parental figure to drinking buddy, and Stacy Martin as older sister Eleanor. Intriguingly, Martin who is younger than Portman and begins the film as another daughter of blue collar Christian values, attempting to babysit and connect with the younger child, but who gets left behind along with her faith as Celeste’s self-worship grows all encompassing. Martin’s difference from Portman is not remarked on at all though, because in a film this allegorical, all that matters is Celeste, and she does not even notice that her daughter is the literal spitting image of herself.
Indeed, Jaffe makes a strong impression while pulling double duty as the young Celeste and then the face of a new generation in daughter Albertine, who more than just resembles the Celeste before the shooting, not that her mother cares long enough to look. All of this is exposed in a day in the life of a comeback concert that allows Portman to lean with a wolfish grin into a coated Staten Island drawl, spitting Corbet and Celeste’s idioms with a mania that rivals the Saturday Night Live parody of her life. That is because the performance also pulls from observations in Portman’s career, be it beginning as the child star quickly objectified, or the revered intellect that is eventually scorned by a publicity machine that asks her to keep things non-confrontational. I can even attest it captures the inherent awkwardness of a “roundtable” interview in which a group of journalists take turns asking a celebrity questions (although if one guy tried to hog all the time as seen in the film, it wouldn’t just be Celeste rising in righteous fury).
But these are just threads comprising a larger tapestry of comic satire in a time where entertainers are expected to be leaders, and slaughter increasingly becomes an entertainment. The film at times feels like it can bite off more than it can chew narratively, relying a little too much on Dafoe’s glib anecdotes to connect the dots. But maybe that’s because they’re connecting a constellation that probably shouldn’t exist, and neither should Celeste, at least not for the reasons she does.
So when it comes time for a big show, and songs by Sia that are intentionally less warm than Gaga’s sentimental ballads in A Star is Born, the film is happy to just let you revel in the spectacle. You probably already have been your whole life.