The story starts with a clinical ominousness. Icy detachment whipped with clips of traffic and daylight which segue into a harrowing high school shooting. It’s here we first meet Celeste, played (at this stage) by Raffey Cassidy (The Killing of A Sacred Deer), who is injured in the assault then swiftly hospitalised. A croaky VO (by Willem Dafoe) deepens her context and backstory while a digi-sizzle of old home movie footage shows Celeste at a younger age. A warped operatic score by Scott Walker, adorned by note drops from a haunted piano, augments the opening credits which crawl upwards against speeding traffic/ ambulance and shots of Celeste in recovery.
The prologue sets the tone, before propelling us into Act 1: Genesis, where a clinical Kubrickian air is instilled with a fleeting sci-fi vibe. We re-meet Celeste in hospital, learning how to play instruments from bed and writing a song about the assault with older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin). Their ditty is performed at the memorial and broadcast on TV, landing Celeste a record deal which boosts her into stardom and the start of her decline.
Key characters colour her journey including coach/ manager (Jude Law): a considerate yet blunt (but not cliched) industry player with Celeste and Eleanor’s interests at heart, despite telling them to “trust the process”. Act 2: Re-genesis, re-introduces Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) years later as a wise ass/cracking, frazzled punk starlet. She now has a daughter Albertine (Raffey Cassidy, who played her in the first act), and has mutated from innocent child singer into a robo-pop monstrosity: a victim of the process she was once told to trust. The VO hints at Celeste’s later decline into drug/ alcohol addiction via shallow pop commercialism and an artistic all-time low, but doesn’t take us there.
As Celeste unravels. Walker’s anti-pop chorales bleed into screaming mad opera with Gregorian yowls to heighten and echo the terror unfurling behind her cracked exterior. Interesting insights into Celeste’s relationship with Albertine surface during a diner lunch gone wrong, while a junket promoting her latest album (also called Vox Lux) is used as leeway by press to probe Celeste about a recent terror attack which could be connected to her work. Disaster follows Celeste like the devil waiting to claim her soul. Tragedy kick-started her career, seems present throughout and seems set to end it: as the catalyst for all her undoing, but Vox Lux only relays what’s the come.
Brady Corbet’s film skims the surface of celebrity product/ façade masquerading as art and commerce as culture, but doesn’t delve beneath the surface too deeply. Her pop music is terrible, like a Transformer’s prolapse, but Celeste doesn’t “want people to think too hard, just to make them feel good”. Vox Lux fails to arrive at a satisfying resolution and just leaves the viewer weltering in the lurid spectacle of a prolonged live act, yet the drama, acting, execution and story (up to a point) make it constantly potent and captivating viewing about the perils of pop stardom, especially its effects on children, parents and motherhood. Vox Lux leaves a tangy metallic aftertaste in the brain, but stuns in ways you least expect.
Vox Lux is in cinemas and on demand 3rd May, 2019.
Words by Daniel Goodwin @dangoodw.
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