By Hannah Ballerstedt
Director Bradley Corbet does not hesitate to address serious societal and political themes in his filmography. His first feature, the grim period piece “The Childhood of a Leader,” depicts a troubled child destined to become a fascist leader. In “Vox Lux,” Corbet attempts to analyze an American culture by following a young singer turned pop star.
Arranged in four parts (prelude, two main chapters and coda), the film begins with a classroom shooting reminiscent of the Columbine shooting. Young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) miraculously survives a gunshot wound (which leaves her in lifelong pain) and later performs a touching original song about her experience. The public’s emotional response to her song launches her into stardom.
Young Celeste’s experience with instant fame is thrilling yet vicious. During this time, she witnesses the ugliness of the pop machine and her trauma caused by the shooting does not subside.
The film then transitions from young Celeste’s story to that of adult Celeste (Natalie Portman). This chapter of the film, set in 2017, seeks to explain not only Celeste’s instability, but also society’s. Celeste, now releasing a new album, is clearly tortured by her physical and emotion pain which are exacerbated by her rightfully pessimistic view of the world.
While Cassidy excellently depicts young Celeste’s trauma and innocent anxiety, Natalie Portman outshines her. Portman, well known for portraying deeply distressed characters such as her Academy Award winning turn as Nina Sayers in “Black Swan,” gives yet another intense performance. While Cassidy plays young Celeste amazingly, Portman adds layers to her psyche. She provides viewers with a convincing portrayal of the apathetic and uneasy thirty-something pop diva. Throughout “Vox Lux,” Celeste’s temperament is easily thrown off, Portman’s facial jarring expressions and sullen body language illustrate this perfectly.
The film’s cinematography is also admirable. Lol Crawley’s use of 35mm film creates raw visuals unlike the usual glossiness of digitally shot features. Where colorful lighting and chic costume designing incorporates glamour, 35mm film adds a gritty layer. Corbet and Crawley worked together for “The Childhood of a Leader,” their decision to reteam proved advantageous.
As for Corbet’s commentary on America’s experience with a rise in gun violence and terrorism, “Vox Lux” does encourage its audience to consider events that happened in the past and what the future may look like. The school shooting scene certainly brings up painful memories and a scene including a terrorist attack also forces us to analyze current and likely future global threats. However, other themes including Celeste’s struggle in the pop industry may be more obvious to viewers. To truly understand the film, we are asked to think critically about its tone, subjects and messages.
While “Vox Lux” featured impeccable acting and deep ideas, the film’s editing was uneven. The last scene, which features Celeste performing live, consists of many songs. This technique drags the scene on for too long and creates an unsatisfactory viewing experience.
Nonetheless, Corbet’s second feature is worth watching for anyone who feels tension in our American politics and pop culture.
Three out of five torches.