Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Vox Lux is a drama about a young woman who survives a severe childhood trauma to become a massive pop star. That is basically it in terms of story. The movie is interesting despite its lack of depth. It kept my attention because of the immediacy with which it covers material we all have seen before. Writer/director Brady Corbet lingers on details that may seem minor, but he has a strong eye for specifics. He makes this story feel unique even if the outline is familiar. It is a captivating production that asks questions about things such as survival, celebrity and personal agency. In the end, it does not totally answer those questions, but watching it move through them can be pretty involving anyway.
The movie is split into two halves. The first opens with the harrowing event that defines her life. It then shows how that leads her into a singing career. The focus is on her relationship with her older sister and manager. The second half picks up seventeen years later, on the day of a huge concert in her hometown. We see how she has adjusted to the tabloid-friendly direction her life has taken. Corbet uses the two sections to comment on each other. The more we learn, the more her actions make sense.
There are a couple of slight twists to this material, but it is not particularly original. What is different in Vox Lux is how it is presented. I have never seen it look like this. Corbet uses an intimate camera and creative production and costume design to establish Celeste’s world. His biggest achievement is Celeste’s concert, which feels like that of many pop stars, but is informed by everything we know about her life. There is bright lights and energetic dancing, yet no joy. The protagonist remains a bit of an enigma throughout. I could understand if some viewers would have trouble figuring out what the purpose of this movie is. What answers there are lie in the presentation.
Since the story is told in two parts, there are two actors playing Celeste. Young Celeste is played by Raffey Cassidy. She has the more difficult and impactful responsibility in creating the character’s journey. She has to represent the beginnings of the transition from innocent child to jaded megastar. She is smart and extremely driven, with hints of the darkness she will struggle to overcome. Cassidy plays her like a kid forcing herself to be an adult. She buries herself deep into a challenging role and delivers Vox Lux’s most nuanced performance.
The above the title star is Natalie Portman as the adult Celeste. She does a great job building off of Cassidy’s choices. She is a louder, angrier, self-pitying and uninhibited version of that same person. It is clear that somewhere in those seventeen years either the world gave up on her or she gave up on it. She now seems like an adult that never grew up, a far cry from the outwardly mature-beyond-her-years teenager. Portman plays Celeste as the inevitable outcome of the decisions made for her when she was young.
Vox Lux (110 minutes without the end credits) is not a great movie. It does not have much new to say with its well-worn plot. However, Brady Corbet is a skilled filmmaker. He obviously knew what he wanted this to look and feel like and that is its strength. The performances (also featuring a solid Jude Law as Celeste’s caring manager) are good, but the direction is what makes this worth seeing. The result is an experience that can be powerful or over-the-top, yet never boring. 3½ out of 5
Natalie Portman as Celeste
Raffey Cassidy as Young Celeste/Albertine
Stacy Martin as Eleanor
Jude Law as Manager
Jennifer Ehle as Josie
Willem Dafoe as Voice of the Narrator
Written and Directed by Brady Corbet