Review: Vox Lux
Friday, December 7, 2018 at 10:30AM
Chris Feil in Brady Corbet, Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Reviews, Vox Lux

by Chris Feil

Vox Lux opens with visceral brief violence and closes with extended musical euphoria that it keeps out of our reach. The sophomore feature of Brady Corbet, the film is most defined by its refusal to allow us to access it even as it monolithically announces its themes. It feels at once like someone screaming into the abyss of an empty stadium with locked doors. But somehow it keeps us banging on its doors that never budge.

The film follows the birth and would-be rebirth of superstar Celeste, played separately in two acts by Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman...

Cassidy’s Celeste is an innocent, thrust into the spotlight after surviving a school shooting and performing at the resulting candlelight vigil. Several scandals and successes later, Portman emerges as a barely recognizable non-adult, leaning hard on a newfound Jersey dialect and Jagger swagger as if they were another costume in her act.

It’s intentionally gauche portraiture from both Corbet and Portman, with the actress delivering yet another one of her now characteristic creative leaps. Some will call this performance a step (or cannonball) too far past good taste, some will point to it as another example of actor as auteur, and even a few will dare to call it Portman’s best. But the fascinating thing about her performance is that each are maybe all true. If nothing else, it is safely the ballsiest performance of the year. For better or worse.

Vox Lux travels paths both obvious and uncommon by taking on the evolution of the pop figure to discuss unreconciled personal and global traumas. It’s a shock to the system, one that actively challenges how we interpret and digest pop culture narratives, both onscreen and otherwise. Not nearly all of it works, but it is an audacious attempt to wrestle many wide-reaching urgent themes into one aggressively enigmatic package. In that regard, Portman’s work is reflective of the film in ways that makes both more interesting to unpack than to experience.

The film is itself a petulant teenager, earning a B on its Karl Marx essay and complaining how hard it is grow grow up in the white suburbs while watching the director’s cut of Nymphomaniac on Netflix too many times. Those of us who caught Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader won’t be so surprised to find this pop saga to be this severe and heavily influenced by Scandinavian cinema. Paired with its thickly layered thematics, the performative chasing of a certain brand of filmmaking is quickly frustrating - and yet Corbet still has convincing directorial chops. It’s easy to imagine him making a real knockout, even if this isn’t quite it.

But Vox Lux isn’t without its wit, however grim. There is a devilish sense of fun under its surface, particularly embodied by Celeste’s handlers that also become cartoonish figures: manager Jude Law manager and publicist Jennifer Ehle. While the film secretly owes much to Cassidy’s understated and delicate work, it’s also appropriate that she and everything around Portman is usurped by her gaucheness. Again mirroring the film, she’s grossly, darkly funny.

Just as you get a grasp on the film, it slips through your fingers - both positively and negatively. Whether there is confusion on Corbet’s part between being elusive and inconclusive is one of the more interesting things about the film to discuss, but doesn’t make for as satisfying watch as its commanding posture would suggest. Yet Corbet’s control makes this feel like a significant directorial arrival, even if he doesn’t achieve all of the film’s aims. Vox Lox is as much of an assault as it is a ghost, lingering close to making an impact on us but never really landing.

Review: C+

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