It’s rare to really see a director take so many risks in one movie as Brady Corbet takes in Vox Lux. He doesn’t just throw in the entire kitchen sink; he raids an entire kitchen sink store. There’s home video footage, strobe lighting, music video parodies, dream sequences, news footage, and a concert movie. There’s voiceover by Willem Dafoe, including a lecture on how conservative musical policies in Stockholm inevitably led to Abba. There are long takes, dialogue scenes that last over ten minutes, and acres of bad taste. Then there’s Natalie Portman with a severe neck piece wearing beautiful sequins and sparkling in glitter. At times disconcerting, at others searingly funny, Vox Lux is one of the strangest and most unfocused films released this year. It’s definitely not a success, but it’s not exactly a failure either. What can I say: I loved it.
However intense and weird his previous film, Childhood of a Leader (notable for its booming Scott Walker score that gave it a grandiosity way above its station), was, Vox Lux is ten times stranger. It starts in 1999 at a school in New Brighton, Staten Island, with the now-familiar scenes of a boy entering a music class and shooting his contemporaries. One survivor is Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), who suddenly rockets to fame by performing a highly televised eulogy for her dead friends. She and her sister (Stacy Martin) head to Europe to record her debut album. Already hardened to the harshest part of adult life — death — her elder sister introduces her to the pleasanter stuff: drinking, sex, and drugs.
In other words, Celeste is all messed up. In complete contradiction to the pacing of the first half, the second “act” (this movie is artificially split into two sections, with a prelude and an epilogue) is set over the course of one day, as a grown-up Celeste (Natalie Portman) prepares for her latest concert, accompanied by her manager (Jude Law) and daughter (Raffey Cassidy, again). Portman’s performance is really something; with a thick Staten Island accent as wobbly as Corbet’s command of tone, she lashes out, self-destructs, criticizes, and cries her way through a whole catalogue of mini-crises. This is a really heady performance. Not everything works, but the intensity simply demands to be admired.
There are some big ideas here. Vox Lux lacerates the whole grief factory by which artists turn their pain into stardom, the way people commit terrorist acts for fame, and the way people have replaced God with pop music. This movie will inspire a lot of think-pieces; Corbet loves the idea of something bigger or outside the story itself. Childhood of a Leader, for example, was about the rise of a fascist dictator that never actually saw him as a dictator. Likewise, the narration here tells us things that don’t happen on the screen itself. Coming at a time school shootings and terrorist attacks — and even terrorist attacks at pop concerts — are a common occurrence, there’s no doubt this film will upset a lot of people. I don’t think it ever really reconciles these ideas properly, and is ultimately much more interesting in the way it presents its ideas than the ideas its presenting, but perhaps cinema doesn’t have to be so tidy. Vox Lux may be a mess, but it’s a sublime mess — a unique and daring vision of a world completely off its axis.