CIFF ‘18 Review: Get Lost in the Violence and Music of ‘Vox Lux’

This piece was initially published on Much Ado About Cinema in October 2018.

Is there anything more satisfying than a catchy pop tune you can’t get out of your head? A tune that pounds its way into the crevices of your brain and infiltrates your every thought? Many times these songs enter our consciousness with little regard to who wrote, who sung it, and how it came to be a hit. But, Brady Corbet’s film, Vox Lux, forces the audience to confront the sinister undertones of pop and its relationship to the spectacle of violence.

Vox Lux is presented in two parts that are defined by two violent tragedies that affect the life of pop star Celeste, played by both Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman. These violent tragedies occur when Celeste is 13 and 31. The first act of violence defines Celeste and shapes her career, her persona, her entire life. The second less directly impacts her, but is still a reflection of her career. Giving much more away would ruin the experience. This is a film best viewed with almost zero expectations or knowledge going in. Let the surprises, twists, and turns wash over you like a bubble-gum-sweet summer ballad that you find yourself mindlessly repeating on your commute home.

The film relies on two central performances to ground its two parts on the innocence and corruption of its star: Cassidy as 13-year-old Celeste (she also plays Celeste’s daughter) and Portman as 31-year-old Celeste. Cassidy is perfect as the doe-eyed, innocent-appearing singer who is thrust into a world of violence, drugs, and sex at lightning speed. But, she is not as naive as people think — she is smart, cunning, and able to hold her own in a world dominated by smooth-talking adults who want to profit off of her trauma.

Portman is a trash-talking, take-no-shit force to be reckoned with, all while wearing a wardrobe I could only aspire to. She is not the innocent, doe-eyed Celeste of the film’s beginning. She has gone through life in the public eye and has the literal and figurative scars to show for it. Portman is able to create a flawed, on-the-edge, yet somehow still sympathetic character who you can’t stop watching. She is enchanting as she dances across the stage in a sparkly jumpsuit — she embodies the persona of an intoxicating pop star.

One critique of Vox Lux is its tendency to be too on-the-nose. This film is a societal critique, but especially with the perplexing use of an unnamed male narrator, voiced by Willem Dafoe, that critique feels too obvious, too forced. For example, at one point, Dafoe equates Celeste’s loss of innocence to America’s loss of innocence after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. While I’m on board for most of this link between violence and celebrity, these bits of narration felt like the film is trying too hard to make a point.

Vox Lux can also be seen as an antithesis to the recent hit release, A Star is Born. While A Star is Born is guaranteed a wider release and critical acclaim, Vox Lux serves as an opposing narrative exposing the deeper psychological and philosophical implications of the pop music industry. It also offers a more nuanced and troubled woman at the center of its narrative, as opposed to the skin-deep characterization of Ally. This is not to shame A Star is Born — it was made for a different audience with a more classic Hollywood narrative. But Vox Lux searches to interrogate the music industry, while A Star is Born uses it as the backdrop for a love story. Plus, I want to bump the Vox Lux soundtrack repeatedly to get me through the winter.

Vox Lux is dripping with pop, tension, and ambiguity. It is a film that refuses to provide the viewer with satisfaction. This ambiguity may frustrate some, but it’s genius. It mirrors our desire to know every detail about celebrity lives: who they’re dating, what was their past like, what did they eat for dinner. But, we don’t get that from Vox Lux. We get allusions to past crimes, indiscretions, and mistakes, but we don’t get the full story. Vox Lux is a strong and sometimes disturbing look at the spectacle of celebrity, violence, and how they are intertwined.

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