Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law
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…isn’t a perfect film but here is a director willing to take risks in this thoughtful and disturbing look at what happens when we process collective grief by placing it on the shoulders of ordinary, broken people.
Promotional trailers for director Brady Corbet’s disturbing, edgy and deliberately uneven Vox Lux focus on the Madonna-like stadium show that Natalie Portman carries off in the movie’s final act. But it is the centre of the film where Portman’s rendering of a very damaged woman and her out of control narcissism and meltdown that is the powerhouse heart of Vox Lux.
Corbet’s debut feature The Childhood of a Leader explores the wealthy, dysfunctional and unhappy childhood of someone fated to become a fascist. Brady examines the notion that we don’t grow up in a vacuum, that we are forever harmed by the influences and traumas that shape us. The 10-year-old Prescott in Childhood is not redeemed, and Vox Lux takes a parallel journey. Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is an ordinary schoolgirl physically and emotionally wounded during the Columbine school massacre. She is thrown on a broken course that she never comes back from.
A modest musician, Celeste plays a self-penned song at the memorial service for the massacre victim and is from that moment a poster girl for tragedy and survival. Jude Law is the manager who discovers her and remains her co-dependent companion as she scales mega successful heights.
This is Law at his best in an intimate, chaotic portrayal of a man who loses all boundaries to become whatever Celeste needs in order to stay afloat.
Cassidy plays the teenage Celeste with a somewhat distant flavour, not entirely credible as the traumatised girl but she shines when she reappears as Celeste’s daughter, crushed and dimmed against Portman’s portrayal of a monstrous needy mother.
Corbett has an art house pedigree of acting roles in films like Martha Marcy May Marlene and the Clouds of Sils Maria. He keeps us ever-aware of Celeste’s long-term damage by physicalising her dependence on a neck brace and painkillers, supplemented with booze and recreational drugs. Portman inhabits the character’s savage edgy movements and defiant vulnerability as the camera follows her backstage and through claustrophobic streets, dragging viewer and cast in its wake.
With art film sensibility, Corbett plays with repeated visual motifs that trigger associations and meaning. In the first Act, ‘Genesis’ are lights; street light, Christmas light and candlelight. A theme of speeding along highways and through tunnels is another.
Vox Lux isn’t a perfect film but here is a director willing to take risks in this thoughtful and disturbing look at what happens when we process collective grief by placing it on the shoulders of ordinary, broken people. Is the sheer fact of survival enough to give us hope? Enough to overlook Celeste’s emptiness at the heart of her quasi-religious, deeply cliched pop concerts? Perhaps – the pop numbers, performed with maximum sequins and filmed by an uncomfortably close camera, are soaring tunes from Australian musician Sia.