Written and Directed by Brady Corbet
Starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes
MPAA rating: R (violence, sexual situations, drug use)
In this very special episode of movie reviews, MJ profiles actor/writer/director Brady Corbet’s second feature-length directing effort, the polarizing Vox Lux. MJ’s Rosalie, Jaime, and Emmi join forces to dissect this complex picture, condensing them into one review. An interesting meditation on the culture and self-importance of celebrity in our modern social media haze daze, Vox Lux stars Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman as 13 and 31 year-old Celeste, respectively, who explodes into pop superstardom as a result of a national tragedy. The film has incited a variety of responses from audiences, so our official review combines the opinions of three different viewers to better approach this fascinating film.
A Tale of Two Sisters
Even after the second viewing of Vox Lux I still feel something is missing for me. The messages and themes presented in the film are meaningful. However, the methods the director chose to utilize, such as voice narration, in order to tell the story, means you are left with a film that doesn’t quite deliver. Not to say the narrator (Willem Dafoe) is ineffective; I would say the contrary. It is instead the way in which the voice is used to fill in the holes of a story that is lacking, rather than just simply showing us the story.
You’re probably wondering why I even bothered to watch this movie twice. Wellllll...try watching Vox Lux, for the first time after watching Barry Jenkins’ emotional and heavy flick If Beale Street Could Talk - it is not a double feature I would recommend. Even after the second viewing though, I was still left with questions. This time the questions were not the same. The difference this time is that by having fresh eyes the problematic points seemed to be more clear.
It is my feeling that writer/director Brady Corbet is trying to represent that our society’s obsession with celebrity personas, fame, greed and the expectation of immediacy in the digital age has caused a negative impact on society. There is no turning back, this idea of immediacy is now a way of life. Solutions and responses are meant to be made at rapid fire. Inevitably life seems to have become one big race to the coffin.
Which brings me to the main character Celeste. The pop star. Or as I would like to refer to her as: The grim reaper in the flesh. Walking death. Her existence perpetuates an early departure from this merry go round called life. No character is spared, not even her blood, her sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin). Out of all the characters I feel that the sister suffers the most. It is she, that wanted the career in music. She is the one that poured herself into the work. She is the one with the actual talent.
Celeste is manufactured. Part of a cog in a corporate machine run by suits with shiny shoes. Her sister Eleanor is real. One may see the sister as pathetic for hanging with Celeste. Nah. I see her as just another casualty of Celeste’s fame. When Celeste made her deal with a corporation, it was at this time, Eleanor gave everything to Celeste, including her life. In looking back at the film, there is nothing good about the sister’s life, not even her wardrobe. She lives her days cleaning up after Celeste, holding her when she has her meltdowns, caring for her niece and oh yea, writing all the songs. What’s unfortunate is that the only time Celeste even seems to appreciate Eleanor is when no one else is watching.
The issue I have with this storyline is that the first three quarters of the movie are spent establishing the close bond between the sisters. Then suddenly, in the last quarter of the film, we zoom to present day and suddenly their relationship is fraught with problems. None of these issues are ever established prior to this point, we are just told that they happened. There is a lot of time spent on the sisters younger lives, but I would have liked to have seen more of their evolution. I have come to the conclusion that the director made a very good movie for the first hour and then in the second hour, things got tough and wellll, he just gave up.
In the...other part of Vox Lux, we meet Celeste’s teen daughter, Albertine. This confused me because she was also played by Raffey Cassidy, who played Celeste in the first act. Yet, Stacy Martin continues to play Eleanor? Ooooook. In this portion, we tag along for a very uncomfortable mother daughter lunch date.
I Wanted Lunch, But Got a Pseudo-Philosophical/Metaphysical Lecture on Celebrity in the Modern Digital Age
Sometimes you go to a diner to have lunch, and end up having a (weird) talk with your daughter (about the state of celebrity culture) in an aggressive Staten Island accent (that you didn’t have as a child?) and secretly drink wine out of a to-go cup. And sometimes you don’t even have lunch because you are kicked out of the place by the manager. I felt for Albertine. You could tell that she worries about her mom, and I would worry about her too. But at the same time she’s in a precarious position because she is caught between her mother and her aunt, who is the one who has actually taken care of her as she has grown up. Being in the middle of family members who are fighting is not fun. I’m one of those people who always seems to be that in-between person. As I watched Albertine, I thought about what it might be like to have a famous pop star parent. I mean, there would have to be perks, right? Would you get to borrow yer mom’s cool clothes?
Well judging by the final longggggggg performance scene, nah, because there just ain’t enough outfits to go around. To be fair, I personally haven’t seen this since TIFF in September, but yuppppp, this is still my takeaway. One. Costume. For the whole concert. This...doesn’t happen. In Lady Gaga’s last tour, she had 11 costume changes per night. This is POP MUSIC. It’s supposed to be showy and about sparkles and glitter and sequins. You know who wears ONE outfit per performance? Van Morrison. You know who else? I dunno, Burt Bacharach. Like come on!!! This whole scene was very strange to me. It was like watching a performance on the Grammys, except with bad dancing and wardrobes. Then it was just kind of done, that’s it, ta da! We all looked at each other like, “whatttt happened?” For me, the movie started off great and interesting, but then once Celeste is this big star, it loses something. It just seems hollow. Maybe that’s what being a pop star is like? I’ll never know.
Jude Law, The Great Connector
The final performance scene is what pretty much cemented it for me. Overall, I don’t like Vox Lux that much. At least, not as a complete film entity. But! I absolutely love the beginning of the film that focuses on Celeste and Eleanor's early years together. The opening of the movie pulled me in so quickly, wrapping me in a very dark, very glittery cape that I continued to wear rather happily until Natalie Portman New Yawk-talked her way into 31 year-old Celeste, doing her best attempt at poor damaged little pop star, with all the believability of Britney Spears as a shy valedictorian (I’ve seen Crossroads twice, the same amount of times I’ve seen Vox Lux). Her accent comes from God only knows where, as Cassidy’s 13 year-old Celeste only displays mild traces of linguistic origin. I like Portman just fine but these are big shoes to fill.
It begs the question…why not cast…an actual pop star? Or someone with legitimate singing and dancing skills? Because the final excruciatingly, painfully long concert sequence, which is supposed to make the point, loud and clear, that this girl is a bonafide S-T-A-R and always will be, well, that just doesn’t pan out. The choreography suffers from a dumbing down so to speak - matching the dance abilities of the actor (a non-dancer, sorry Natalie) so that there can be synchronous dance moves, but then you just have professional dancers relegated to executing very simple sashays and arm maneuvers that just looks awkward and very funny. And to Emmi’s point, there is not a one costume change. Ok. Look, if you have a smaller budget for the performance section, and only have money for one Celeste costume, then goddammit that outfit better be sparkly and amazing and awe-inducing. Instead we got a glittery space leotard with two long strips of metallic washi tape on it. The singing is fine, and the music and lyrics aren’t too terrible thanks in part to a collaboration with Sia on the back end, but…this part of the film is just rough. And maybe this is the point? I don’t know. But I really think it comes off as fake as fuck and just poor collaborative filmmaking in general.
The other major problem, as Rosalie has mentioned, is the massive time jump employed by the story - we see that things have changed significantly for Celeste and Eleanor, but we don’t know why, and we’re told to like, just get over it. This is frustrating because we don’t really know why Celeste is the way she is now, or why Albertine is who she is, or why Eleanor is so tortured by her relationship with her sister. And the only connecting thread between the naive and the adult worlds is…Jude Law. Yes, everyone’s favorite evil king and Baby Gay Dumbledore plays Celeste’s manager with, as you would expect, all the glory of Jude Law you’ve come to expect from every single Jude Law performance ever. I suspect he plays gross dudes so well because…he plays one in real life? That’s fucked up of me to say. I’m sure he’s a normal, decent human male. Anyway, he shows up in the beginning to do gross stuff with Eleanor and he continues doing gross stuff with a grown-up Celeste. He is The Grossness. But he does it in such a way that you love - from the first moment you see him strutting on a busy NYC street in his nylon baseball jacket to his final scene, post-drug euphoria in cool, Jeff Golblum-esque attire. His character, known simply as The Manager, is the only significant adult character ushering us through the entire spectra of the film (I’d argue that when the film opens, Eleanor, while older than Celeste, isn’t technically an adult yet). He’s an omen that bad things are to come for our heroine sisters, even though we don’t necessarily know it yet, or why (ugh).
Vox Lux benefits from some very striking, engaging visual elements in the first hour or so, suggesting a confidence and originality at the hands of fairly new-ish director Corbet. Don’t get me wrong. I want to watch Corbet’s next film. I want to watch his next next film. I am sitting up and taking notice, even if many pieces of this one left me wishing Lady Gaga had played Celeste instead (sorry, Natalie).