Vox Lux: Featured Diva Power

Sometimes I watch trailers and come away feeling like, “Oh they totally made that movie for me.” The trailer for VOX LUX was such an experience for me. Natalie Portman as an on-the-edge pop star? Wild colors? Vaguely nightmarish visuals? Songs by Sia? I am so there!

On the other hand, I felt that way after watching the trailer for TERMINAL, another release from Neon. TERMINAL is probably in my bottom five films of the year. A great trailer is certainly no guarantee of results. So did LUX end up affirming my trailer impression or going awry?

Vox Lux: Mirror mask
Raffey Cassidy reflects on life in a mirrored mask in this VOX LUX moment. (Courtesy of Neon)

The Idea Behind VOX LUX

Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy) is an eighth grader who barely survived a shooting in the midst of a massacre at her high school. While the nation watches, Celeste makes her first public appearance at a memorial service and sings a song written by her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin). A sad nation falls in love and before you know it she has a Manager (Jude Law) shepherding through the recording of an album and the negotiation of her first record contract. Against the odds, the record catches fire, she makes a video and boom! Pop star success.

The story picks up years and albums later. Adult Celeste (Natalie Portman) has become a sort of Madonna-meets-Gaga-style success with Mel Gibson’s penchant for substance abuse, vehicular-related arrest, and invoking racial slurs when in trouble.

She has returned to New York to stage the first concert of the tour she refuses to label her comeback in her small Long Island town. She also has a brand-new album to promote, the first in three years. On the eve of her show, however, an unnamed terrorist group dressed in mirrored masks that resemble the ones she and back up dancers wore in her first video open fire on a beach full of people. Additionally, her teenaged daughter Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy) is in the audience. As the stress of the moment and a coffee table full of drugs catch up with her, can Celeste possibly rise to the occasion?

Vox Lux: Adult Celeste
Natalie Portman reaches for pop music immortality in a scene from VOX LUX. (Courtesy of Neon)

Writing VOX LUX

Writer/director Brady Corbet’s script is clearly written with tone and mood in the forefront of its mind. It exists to serve the visuals, not vice versa. On this score, it does well. It breaks purples at times, especially when Willem Dafoe’s Narrator speaks, but largely the dialogue stays out of the way. The moments that really stick out to me, like when adult Celeste suggests to the Manager that they do a bunch of drugs and engage in promiscuous activities, have more to do with the performances than the actual words being spoken.

Where the screenplay suffers some is in its structure. In what is a reoccurring theme for the movie, it often fails to offer the right amount of any of its elements. For instance, the aforementioned Dafoe voiceover occurs too infrequently to be an effective motif but far too often to be ignored. Similarly, each section of the movie — Celeste as a teen and Celeste as an adult — lingers too long not to draw you in, but runs out too quickly to feel satisfying.

Vox Lux: mother daughter
Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman take a nice mother-daughter stroll in VOX LUX. (Courtesy of Neon)

Casting the Leads of VOX LUX

Natalie Portman has often been written off as technically good but bland in roles. I disagreed before VOX LUX and can’t believe anyone could label this performance as such. She is an exposed livewire here, crackling with energy, bound to harm anyone who gets close, and largely aware of her own destructive potential.

Yet, she also makes the fragility of Celeste feel real even when it veers into hysterics. No matter how big she lets herself go, Portman always lets the fundamental pain of her character peek through.

The real delightful surprise of the film, though, has to be Raffey Cassidy in her dual roles as teenage Celeste and adult Celeste’s daughter. I now vaguely recall Cassidy as George Clooney’s childhood robot friend in TOMORROWLAND. While watching VOX LUX, however, I did not once make the connection. Her work here seemed so much more assured, so much more nuanced, that her prior work never occurred to me.

Cassidy’s ability to create two different characters while still showing them as connected in subtle ways is undeniably impressive. That she holds her side of the screen against a full-on fire-breathing Portman is even more so.

Vox Lux: The Manager
Jude Law watches a recording session with measured indifference in a scene from VOX LUX. (Courtesy of Neon)

Casting the Rest of the VOX LUX Callsheet

Jude Law as the Manager starts a bit too much with his big swing New York accent and chatterbox, chain smoking energy. However, as the film progresses and he becomes the older, more slowed down version of the character, his work improves. Again, like Cassidy, the fact that he finds the notes to make the character feel real while still evolving is good work. Law’s character could have been a monster or a cliché or both. Instead, he finds a kind of sad sweetness to him, a knowledge that he failed his teenage charge and became her enabler, not her protector.

Everyone else is essentially fine but largely forgettable. This is not a problem for, say, the Journalist (Christopher Abbott). However, Martin’s inability to make Eleanor dynamic does hurt the film some. As she becomes a kind of antagonist for Celeste, we need some indication that she has the claws and will to step into her sister’s face. However, even in her one moment of defiance, you never feel it.

Vox Lux: Sister
Stacy Martin must sit and bear witness to the pop music excess in VOX LUX. (Courtesy of Neon)

Filming of VOX LUX

Corbet — and therefore the film — is never better than when in motion. Whether it is teenage Celeste speeding through a tunnel in a mirrored mask or adult Celeste trying to find a place to eat with her daughter in New York City, Corbet makes the camera move with a compelling, queasy voyeurism.

When he can simulate this effect through montage, as with Celeste’s first trip to Europe, the effect is similarly strong.

However, his vision seems to stall when things slow down. During a scene between the Journalist and Celeste, for instance, there is an air of initial importance. Once his questions begin to take shape, you can feel how pivotal this scene might be. However, the camera has a sort of static, stale quality to it that robs the scene of tension. Even as Portman breaks down later over the treatment, it feels more tell than show. We know he got to her because she says so but the film never sells it.

Vox Lux: Concert
Natalie Portman commands the stage in this VOX LUX moment. (Courtesy of Neon)

The Music of VOX LUX

As noted above, the majority of the songs are written by Sia in cooperation with Greg Kurstin who, besides sharing the same month and day of birth with me, has become a frequent Sia collaborator over the past few years. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, they are perfect. They feel right for their times and for the versions of Celeste singing them. There is also an element of discomfiting, ill-defined menace that pulsates in each.

Later revelations in the film hint at why this might be, depending on how seriously you take them. However, even before then, they leave you as a listener feeling both swept up in the music and strangely put off, as though you can feel something wrong about them even if you cannot put a finger on it.

Vox Lux: Teen Celeste
Raffey Cassidy prepares for her first recording a scene from VOX LUX. (Courtesy of Neon)

That’s a Wrap!

Honestly, in writing the review, I came to like the film more than I had when leaving the theatre. That said, I do still feel it is deeply flawed. The structure remains a problem for me and the mix of the elements never comes together. We need more Dafoe or none at all. We need more teen Celeste or a lot less. Ditto for adult Celeste. The movie feels unbalanced and, as a result, a lot of the really interesting elements and the two excellent performances at its center often feel like they are competing for the spotlight with the movie’s shortcomings.

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