‘Vox Lux’—Shock ‘Value’

‘Vox Lux’—Shock ‘Value’

December 7, 2018

If there’s one thing abundantly clear about “Vox Lux,” it’s that this movie fancies itself as the highest and most relevant art. Why else would the film open with one of the most brutal depictions of gun violence ever shown on screen? It speaks volumes about writer/director Brady Corbet’s latest feature that one must issue a content warning in order to even talk about it, let alone broach the subject of recommending it.

“Vox Lux” wastes no time introducing the audience to trauma: The film opens with a horrific school shooting in 1999, a “veiled” distortion of real events in Columbine, C.O. If that’s not something you want to see, “Vox Lux” isn’t for you, and no one would hold that against you. The purposefully gratuitous violence may serve as a catalyst for the story that follows, but no one should head into the theater ill-prepared. In the aftermath of this tragedy, we meet recovering thirteen-year-old Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy, the best part of “Tomorrowland”); at a vigil a few weeks later, Celeste sings for a mourning crowd, and her performance captures a nation.

These beats are connected by narration from Willem Dafoe, who talks the audience through Celeste’s rise through the music industry. About halfway through, the film flashes forward to 2017. Celeste, now a global superstar with a teenager of her own (who, not coincidentally, is also played by Raffey Cassidy). The role of Celeste, meanwhile, is now taken by Natalie Portman, who delivers a high energy, scattershot performance that mostly works. Suffice it to say, Celeste’s lifestyle is far from healthy, with a Kanye-esque career and corrosive relationship with the limelight.

Once “Lux” finally finds her, Portman’s manic energy has a magnetism that should land her once again on the Academy’s shortlist, and Cassidy surely keeps up in her dual roles (though the same cannot be said for a questionably-accented Jude Law). Behind the camera, Corbert certainly has a lot to say about society (namely, that we live in one), though a few of his decisions are questionable at best. His camera is often static and stationary, and the reliance on narration doesn’t enhance the narrative.

For all Corbet’s efforts to make “Vox Lux” unique, it feels so obviously in conversation with a few recent releases. The film has a striking resemblance to Alex Ross Perry’s “Her Smell” (though the latter doesn’t release until sometime in 2019, avoiding a “White House Down”/“Olympus Has Fallen” situation). But while Perry’s film oozed atmosphere, “Lux” lacks comparable aesthetic prowess. But the real parallel here is Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born,” another portrait of modern pop stardom. Corbet surely has a lot more quality commentary than Cooper—then again, Cooper’s cinematography could never be labeled “static.” If only there was a movie that could do both!

Perhaps Corbet’s boldest move is denying his audience an anthem like “Shallow”—for a movie about a megastar, “Vox Lux” lacks memorable music. Then again, that’s Corbet’s point: Trauma does not necessarily produce meaningful art. While this central message is refreshing after the “no pain, no gain” ethos of countless flicks like “First Man,” it’s still worth questioning the necessity of the opening scene. The movie wants to be everything Celeste’s albums are not: Meaningful, socially conscious, and provocative. It’s somewhat successful—add “pretentious” and “well-acted” to that list, and you have a pretty good description of “Vox Lux.”

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