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“Vox Lux,” Reviewed: A Tale of Star Power That Misuses Natalie Portman’s Star Power

With its extremes of experience and banal slightness of content, Brady Corbet’s rock-world melodrama “Vox Lux,” portentously labelled “A Twenty-First Century Portrait,” is an exemplary latter-day entry in the realm of cinematic camp. Corbet’s direction is sober, sombre, earnest, restrained; the film is heavy with allusions to historic events, such as the killings at Columbine High School and the 9/11 attacks, which define the movie’s tone and set the plot in motion. In a way, Corbet is dealing with great issues and making a major display of taking them very seriously. Yet the subject of the film is the burden of a young singer’s celebrity, and the incidental subordination of matters of life and death to the story of a rising and falling star renders the film’s heightened tone absurd, unintentionally comedic—all the more so in that the issue that Corbet approaches with the greatest seriousness is fame itself.

The story is divided into three parts; in the first, labelled “Prelude 1999,” Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy), thirteen going on fourteen, a middle-school student in New Brighton, Staten Island, is gravely wounded in a school shooting. She recovers, and in the movie’s second section, “Act I: Genesis 2000-2001,” she and her older sister, Ellie (played by Stacy Martin), write a song, which Celeste performs at a church service. Somehow (in the era before social media) it goes viral, Celeste becomes a teen pop sensation, and, despite her religious background, begins to live it up, culminating in a night in a hotel with a rough-hewn hard rocker.

In the second act, “Regenesis 2017,” Celeste—now played by Natalie Portman—has a teen-age daughter, Albertine (also played by Cassidy), as a result of that one-night stand. This “act” is also launched by a terrorist attack, one in which the attackers wear masks resembling the ones made famous in one of Celeste’s videos. Celeste’s life is in disorder—she is an alcoholic and a drug abuser, and she has been the subject of scandal, after injuring a pedestrian while driving and making racist remarks about the victim. Her “rebirth” depends on Celeste’s coming-home concert to her native neighborhood in Staten Island, where the 1999 shooting took place—and it also involves a reconciliation of sorts with Ellie (still played by Stacy Martin) as well as with Albertine (who has, for the most part, been raised by Ellie). “Vox Lux” illustrates that snarky aphorism that celebrities remain, throughout their lives, the emotional age at which they became famous. But the movie stands the concept on its head, depicting the eternal adolescence of Celeste as both a burden for her family and her entourage (even for herself) and also the wellspring of her success—of her ability to connect with an audience.

What is it that makes a person from a seemingly ordinary background able to create something, with their very presence, that will incite the devotion of millions of people? What’s it like for them to become famous, to face the daily demands of fame? In short, what’s it like to be a brand, to be beloved by millions as an image of oneself, and how does an artist’s public identity correspond with her private life—which may be forced into the spotlight with one false move?

The unrealized attempt to address these questions is, by far, the best thing about “Vox Lux,” even if it’s there only as a sketch. There’s a thread of psychological insight running through the film, the notion of idiosyncrasy, distinctiveness: Celeste is introduced into the film when she alone, among the students in her middle-school class, doesn’t cower from the shooter but stands up and tries to engage him (in prayer, she tells him). Her effort doesn’t dissuade him from shooting her; it only suggests that, even in eighth grade, with no obvious talent that makes her a child of destiny, Celeste is different. Her musical ability is middling at best. Rather, what she displays is, in effect, leadership—standing up to shift and shape a situation, to change it.

Yet Celeste’s gift is a paradoxical one: it’s empathetic but impersonal, a connection that’s more a matter of impulse and desire, and that’s subject to a similar volatility, instability; it remains, ultimately, all about her. It arises from the same impulsiveness as do her rage and aggression. Corbet suggests that Celeste’s destructiveness is born not of her art but of her fame—that it’s entirely a by-product of being wrenched from her home and her family at too young an age and having her self-image distorted by her public image. “Vox Lux” is a coincidental retort to this year’s version of “A Star Is Born.” Bradley Cooper’s film says, in effect: work hard, be good, and your luck will make itself—unless you have the misfortune to have a traumatic background to overcome, in which case it will eventually overtake you. But Corbet’s film could be called, with apologies to Ozu, “A Star Is Born, But . . .”: the transformation of Celeste into a star comes off without a hitch. Rather, her biggest trauma turns out to be fame itself; despite her stable family background and her virtuous intentions, Celeste (a rather on-the-nose starscape name) is overtaken by the mechanisms and the power of celebrity itself.

The thread of insight, thin but strong, makes the unfortunate dramatic incarnation of the film all the more disheartening. From the start, by tying Celeste’s first flush of fame to a historic event of tragic scope; by depicting the Twin Towers as icons of that time and then the new One World Trade Center (the home of The New Yorker’s offices) as an icon of the movie’s present-day section; by depicting another, recent, fictional act of terrorism that (in a heavily messagizing bit of historical feedback) borrows a trope from one of Celeste’s music videos, Corbet replicates the ugly media phenomena that he decries, the banalization of such grave experience through their reproduction in media. The film is narrated in a wanly philosophical and sententious voice-over, which Willem Dafoe delivers in an oracular, seen-it-all voice. (Hard to blame the actor; his tone is that of Corbet’s direction throughout.) “Vox Lux” sinks under the weight of its own bombastic earnestness. Unfortunately, it pulls one of the best modern actresses, Portman, down along with it.

Portman is an actor of contradiction, one of the most dramatically expressive performers of her generation, a true classic movie star: the kind whose tremendous emotional radiance flashes brilliantly even in repose, the kind that depends more upon her mere presence than upon her performance, the kind that could be discovered by a studio talent agent when she was sitting at a luncheonette counter (as Lana Turner actually was). Portman (like Turner) isn’t primarily an actress of dialogue; of course, she performs it fluently, intelligently, expressively, but not spontaneously; the calculation shows. Her voice isn’t her most distinctive instrument. Rather, her speech is like a kind of background music to the singular power of her facial expressions, her gestures, her gaze, her presence. She’s one of the great physical actresses of this era.

Unfortunately, Corbet has Portman do for the role of Celeste what she did for her Oscar-nominated performance in “Jackie”: she takes on an accent—in this case, a stereotypical white working-class Noo Yawk accent. (There’s a whole sidebar to be written about its use as a mark of cinematic authenticity.) Here, Portman channels what seemed, at first, to be the style of Lorraine Bracco, or maybe that of Cyndi Lauper; but when I heard one particular line of dialogue (in which Celeste tells Ellie, “You look like a retard”), the comparison leaped out: intentionally or not, Portman’s performance resembles that of Margot Robbie in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The difference is that Robbie’s performance isn’t a psychological portrait but a character turn, and a comedic performance in a movie that is, also, a comedy (albeit a very serious one). Portman’s turn in “Vox Lux” is nearly as funny, unintentionally, as Robbie’s is by design. Corbet’s ponderous direction allows her only a few moments that reveal, in brief but quietly explosive visual asides (such as one in a mirror, and another on-stage), the art that makes her the star that she is.

ViaNewYorker