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Film Review: Vox Lux

8 May 19 words: Hilary Whiteside

Brady Corbet's allegory for the decline of the American dream is in cinemas now... 

Director: Brady Corbet 

Starring: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin

Running time: 104 minutes 

On a simplistic level, Vox Lux follows the transition of Celeste (Cassidy and Portman) from an innocent child into a mega famous rock star, examining the difficulties and trappings such a life can present. However, director Corbet’s purpose is far more complex and wide-reaching, as he uses Celeste’s story to examine the state of America, its residents and its fall from grace in the world. Celeste’s decline is America’s decline.  

The film begins with shocking scenes of violence as we are subjected to a Columbine school type shooting. Celeste receives a spinal injury, which serves as the catalyst for pivoting her into stardom. With the help of her sister, Eleanor, who incidentally is acknowledged as being both more attractive and more talented than Celeste, she writes and performs a song which becomes an anthem for collective grief and unity in the country. With this hit in her bag, and with the help of a cunning and efficient manager Celeste is hurled from her innocent, law abiding, Christian world into the treacherous pit of debauchery and evil that is seen to accompany fame and celebrity status. 

As a reminder of his purpose and to sustain the film’s gravitas, Corbet continually reminds the audience of current events taking place in the world at the time. There are harrowing scenes of a beach-like slaughter of tourists, which emerges from nowhere, completely unexpectedly, making his point more chilling and poignant. Ubiquitous shots of the Manhattan skyline are used mockingly. Sweeping shots emphasising the strength and history of the buildings and indeed, by implication, America itself are served to us; there are no shots of aircraft flying into the twin towers because there is no necessity. The comment is made chillingly, silently. William Dafoe's narrative voice is used as a sardonic, ironic commentary on events taking place on screen. He casually and caustically reports the trivia of a superstar’s life in the same tone and underlying mockery as he does world changing events.   

Roughly half way through the film, Celeste suddenly changes; in fact, she transmogrifies into Natalie Portman. On one level this is a neat way of suggesting the passing of time and Celeste’s life on the road. However, rather confusingly, Celeste the younger (Cassidy) now takes on the role of her daughter in the present. Watch out for the visual prompt of  ‘the collar’ to sort through this transition. Celeste’s manager is not replaced, he is simply aged. Confused? 

Celeste’s story to examine the state of America, its residents and its fall from grace in the world. Celeste’s decline is America’s decline

The remainder of the film focuses on the character of Celeste and the life of a celebrity rock star. All the cliches are here; she drinks too much (obviously) she takes drugs (obviously) and she is too irresponsible to raise her daughter, leaving this to her long-suffering sister. It has to be said that Portman is magnificent in this role; she adopts an obnoxious stance and irresponsibility with vigour. She shows Celeste’s vulnerability and determination in the way she picks herself up from the floor (literally) and performs, simply carrying on. Yet despite these shortcomings, it is difficult not to like her a little bit and recognise the pathos in her character.  

The final section of the film is dedicated to Celeste’s stage performance, which is lavish and extravagantly choreographed (which is surely the point). She is seen to be revered by her audience and wins over her deluded daughter and sister in the audience; this is indeed what stars are programmed to do. However, this would be far too shallow a conclusion. Celeste admits to having signed an almost Faustian pact; she is dependent on her sister for song material and her manager for stability. She is haunted by her near-death experience of her childhood in the form of omens and portents.  Shots of her tunnel visions are particularly effective and disturbing and raise the question of the cost of her fame to her mental health. Clear comment is made about the obnoxious society in which we exist; Celeste is also on the receiving end of a journalist who clear intent is to manipulate her responses to his questions and misrepresent her and an unfortunate incident develops when an employee requests her autograph raising the issue of entitlement and forcing us to appraise the society in which we live and what part we play. 

Vox Lux is a chilling exploration of modern-day society exposed in all its unpleasantness. Terrifically acted, especially from Portman, it is a visually imaginative and varied film that comes armed with a  good blast of music. Definitely worth a watch. 

Did you know? Natalie Portman shot her part in only 10 days

Vox Lux is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 16 May

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