It’s a cheeky, knowing bit of casting to put Natalie Portman in the role of a messed up former child star. Portman, who has long been the benchmark for how to graduate from pre-teen stardom without flying off the rails, gnashes her way through a part that lets her indulge all the bad behaviour and public meltdown she elegantly avoided in her own life. It’s a performance she throws herself into so wildly – chewy Noo Yoik accent and all – that at times you wonder if it might have edged into bad acting, but it’s always so exhilarating that it ranks as one of her most memorable.
The film she gifts with this blast of personality is less consistently thrilling but admirably ambitious. In Vox Lux’s earlier scenes, Raffey Cassidy plays Celeste, a teenage survivor of a school shooting. At a memorial for her dead classmates, Celeste sings a song about her ordeal. The media attention on that performance turns her into a star. 17 years later and Celeste, now played by Portman, is a pop music icon. She’s a drug-taken, day-drinking, entitled nightmare, who pretty much ignores her teenage daughter (also played by Cassidy) and is a massive pain in the bum of her manager (Jude Law). The voice of a wounded generation has been autotuned into bubblegum pop about nothing. Celeste is on a comeback tour, which gets an unplanned, if not completely unwelcome, jolt of publicity when a terrorist group begins committing atrocities in her name.
This is the second film by writer-director Brady Corbet, himself a former child actor (he was in Thunderbirds and Thirteen). His first, Childhood of a Leader, showed a mind teeming with ideas if not yet the restraint to pick just the best ones. It had a keenness to over embellish everything. Vox Lux is still quite an eggy pudding, with a smaller handful of the pretentious flourishes of Childhood of a Leader – Corbet divides the film, needlessly, into intertitled ‘acts’ and has Willem Dafoe provide a withering voiceover – but Corbet’s focus has sharpened and his target is as timely as can be.
In pithily written scenes, Corbet pulls apart the nothing-matters nature of modern news and celebrity. Everything is entertainment. A scandal’s only a scandal for as long as it’s interesting. War needs a good angle if it’s going to get coverage. Celebrity and terrorism, Corbet reasonably suggests, are the two biggest concerns of modern life and both are now so commonplace that our attention is saturated with them. In the film’s opening, the school shooting is bloody and loud and hard to watch. In the film’s later modern day scenes, terrorists gun down a crowd (an out-of-focus, faceless mass) while wearing glittered masks, one of Celeste’s trademarks. Yah gotta make it a show if you want to get noticed. It’s an incredibly bleak point he’s making, but a very canny one.
Vox Lux is less a wake-up call than a WTF scream and Corbet mostly veers away from surmonising, although that voiceover keeps making sure we’ve got the message. Celeste is such a bewitching grotesque, particularly in Portman’s eager hands, that she dances you through a lot of nihilistic gloom. As a portrait of modern celebrity – entirely detached from ‘real’ life and normal people but breathlessly begged for her uninformed soundbites on complex world issues – she’s messy and riveting and all too easy to believe. Vox Lux is, just like Celeste and the modern news cycle, kind of depressing, but in a way that’s exciting.