Natalie Portman as a glitter-glam pop star with silver sequins pasted over her eyebrows – part David Bowie, part Lady Gaga – provides Vox Lux with its story hook and its most stunning image. But her outsized character, Celeste, is like a hologram that runs away with the second half of Brady Corbet’s film, leaving its stronger opening section behind.  

As Celeste morphs from a high-school shooting victim in 1999 to a paparazzi-hounded superstar and personal trainwreck in 2017, Vox Lux attempts to tie her story to the violent currents of the times, examining the link between pop culture and social trauma. The result is exhilarating in its ambition, uneven in its execution, and at times maddening in its grandiosity.

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The film begins with stark realism. Under grey skies, we see a working-class street with Christmas lights in the windows and American flags on display. A voiceover by Willem Dafoe tells us that Celeste is 13 years old. Throughout the film he is a detached narrator who occasionally comments on her trajectory, linking it to the social currents around her.

Young Celeste, played with a perfect mix of sweet diffidence and compassion by Raffey Cassidy, is at school when a goth classmate stomps in with a gun. Corbet places us in the classroom with Celeste, in a scene of claustrophobic, visceral terror, as bodies fall and blood splatters.

She suffers a spinal injury, and along with her more musically talented older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), writes a cathartic song that she sings at a memorial service for the victims. Slight and lyrical, the song sounds like one of Sia’s because, in fact, it is. Corbet carefully chose music that enhances his themes. Sia, also an executive producer of the film, wrote the songs, performed by the actors. Scott Walker’s minimalist electronic soundtrack is just ominous enough.

As Dafoe’s voiceover says, Celeste’s first song “expressed the country’s grief.” He adds, sardonically, that it also became a hit. Here, without straining to make the connection, Vox Lux cogently reflects how easily sincerity can be overtaken by fame.

Jude Law breezes through the film, wryly playing an unnamed, tough-love manager who guides Celeste through her skyrocketing career. Together Celeste and Eleanor conquer New York and the music world, while Corbet leaves the clarity of realism behind, with scattershot results.

The film begins to lurch between resonant and obvious. Celeste describes a dream of being in a tunnel, and soon we see it played out as a music video inspired by her inner fears. The connection is too pat and the style of the zooming, brightly-coloured video is trite.

Vox Lux is the second film from Corbet, an actor turned writer and director. The first, The Childhood of a Leader (2015), also places an individual in history, as a boy in the early 20th Century grows up to become a fascist dictator.

But when Corbet tries to link Celeste’s new adulthood to the 9/11 terror attack in 2001, with the narrator saying her loss of innocence reflected the country’s, the claim is simplistic and borders on being exploitative. Her personal experience of the school shooting carries weight; being alive at the same time as a cataclysmic event does not.

From past to present

The film gains traction again when it makes a clever time jump to 2017. Portman takes over as Celeste, now 31. We instantly observe the effects of celebrity: fame has made her a jerk. She is all surface and posturing, down to the working-class Staten Island accent she never had as a girl, but that she now uses in her public and private lives. There is no longer any difference between her persona and her off-screen self.

At each stage, the film’s visuals match Celeste’s actions. In 2017 she lives in a world of harsh fluorescent hotel lighting. She drinks and does drugs. She has a teenage daughter, Albertine. With smart dual casting, Albertine is played by Cassidy, this time as sexually precocious and resentful of her mother.

Celeste displays all the self-absorption of stardom, yelling and snarling at handlers. She whines that Albertine doesn’t love her as much as she loves her aunt Eleanor. (Who can blame the girl?) Portman’s performance is energetic and big – makeup and costumes do half the work – but not deep, because Celeste no longer seems like a person with many layers. She has traded it all away to her silvery image.

Celeste’s stardom is so global that terrorists in Croatia, for no obvious reason, wear masks that appeared in one of her videos. Corbet shrewdly uses the link between Celeste and the attack – an arbitrary but real connection – not to assign responsibility but to indicate how deeply violence is embedded in the culture.

The film closes with extravagant concert scenes, mostly seen from Celeste’s perspective onstage. The music has a techno-pop sound, as Portman sings about fame, surrounded by over-choreographed dancers. Is her act meant to seem as derivative as it does? Large-scale, flashy and a little dull, the show lands as near-parody. Dafoe’s narrator hints that Celeste may have traded her soul to the devil, and there is not enough irony in the entire self-serious film to make that line work. Vox Lux comes to share Celeste’s vapidity rather than reflect it, but it says a lot about Corbet’s possibilities that even in the film’s most frustrating moments, his daring and imagination shine through.

★★★☆☆

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