Brady Corbet's pop manifesto "Vox Lux" is heavy with import. The film, which swirls around the Diva Industrial Complex, opens with a school shooting, touches on 9/11 and features a brutal terrorist attack within a plot about a young singer as she transforms into a massive star. But does it earn that weight? And what, precisely, is it trying to say?
The film is broken into three acts. Act I, "Genesis," which takes place from 2000 to 2001, follows the rise of Celeste as a young teen, played by Raffey Cassidy, wounded in a school shooting who becomes a national sensation after singing an original song at a vigil. Act I is shocking, moody, dark and dreamy. It foregrounds the relationship between Celeste and her older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), her songwriting collaborator, and establishes Celeste as a contemplative, sensitive teen who thinks often about death and her own fragile existence in the world.
Which is why it's such a disappointment when Act II, "Regenesis," devolves so rapidly as soon as Natalie Portman, playing the older Celeste in 2017, arrives on screen. It's rare that a movie with such a promising first half completely falls apart in the second – when the Oscar winner shows up. Portman's performance is a big, big swing – and a huge miss. The sassy Brooklyn drawl she's chosen to perform here is truly atrocious, not to mention completely inexplicable, since Cassidy has no such accent as a teen. She sounds like Andrew Dice Clay, and her performance is cartoonish and grating. Her Celeste is abusive, crude, manipulative and offensive – wildly different from the character we came to know in Act I.
The extreme change in character could be a commentary on the way the career has changed Celeste, but the transition is so jarring. It doesn't help that Corbet has also cast Cassidy as Albertine, Celeste's teenage daughter. It's entirely possible, but unclear if there's some sort of fractured identity story happening. Act II drags its feet through Celeste's afternoon, building to her big concert, as she drinks and fights with her daughter, sister and manager (Jude Law), and has to answer questions about terrorists in Croatia shooting up a beach wearing masks from her video.
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When we finally get to the big Finale, the overwhelming sense is just: That's it? The weightless, vague pop songs are written by Sia, and Corbet films it plainly, as if a concert documentary. Celeste's costume is frankly simple, her dancing perfunctory (Portman's husband Benjamin Millepied choreographed), her language of empowerment empty.
"Vox Lux" is a film that wants to talk at you, starting with Willem Dafoe's solemn narration. His omniscient narrator pops up throughout, name-dropping Reaganomics and outlining the historical context of the Swedish music industry. And while Dafoe explains, Celeste alternates between monologuing and lecturing. It's wordy all right, but it feels empty of meaning.
Corbet's debut, "The Childhood of a Leader," a black-and-white film about a turn-of-the-century European child fascist, is much like "Vox Lux," in the sense that there seem to be Important Themes roiling throughout, underscored by Corbet's exceptional and original filmmaking. But everything it's trying to say remains under the surface. "Vox Lux" is frustrating as it remains obtuse – and one has to wonder if that opacity is covering up that there's nothing much at all going on here.
Cast: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Jude Law.
Directed by Brady Corbet.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
Rated R for language, some strong violence, and drug content.