‘Vox Lux’ is a seductive cinematic experience

Movies get to you on an emotional level. It’s right there in invisible handwriting on the application when you buy a ticket.

Let’s say you’ve had a rough day and people out there are still clueless on the roads and inside simple places like coffee shops, so you escape into the theater for something to hide in for a couple hours. The movie doesn’t always have to reinvent the wheel of filmmaking, but distract and amuse you. Sometimes, movies do that by pure seduction. The main characters are delightfully chaotic or something in the story just connects.

Vox Lux is a seductive cinematic experience.

Brady Corbet’s second directorial feature is an imperfect film with wide-eyed aspirations that can stretch all over the place, but in the end, connects emotionally and that is why I enjoyed it. A film that aims for the stars yet hits a cloud, and should be happy with its results.

The teenage Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is the lone survivor in her class when a gunman terrorizes her school, but she catches a bullet to the side of her throat that leaves a scar there to remind her of the trauma. However, the physical scar pales in comparison to the psychological ones. Being a singer with a unique voice, aided by her older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), Celeste sings a song at the  school vigil that turns her into a star overnight. Imagine riding the coattails of tragedy to success and what that can do to somebody, and you have Celeste.

The sisters are equipped with an old school manager (Jude Law), hired by the family to make sure they are treated right on Celeste’s rise to fame, but that doesn’t stop bad things from happening and emotional facades from crumbling down.

Problem #1: Throughout the first hour of the film, you never fully understand or register if Celeste actually wants to be a singer or have this career. The film runs past a lot of key moments, stops at a few, but moves quickly through her rise. The manager constantly has to guide her through recordings and her sister writes the songs, but you never truly buy that Celeste wants to do this so she can mask her pain from the shooting. It’s not sold particularly well.

Enter Natalie Portman as the adult Celeste, a woman constructed by big hits, huge mistakes, and on the verge of a breakdown. The second half of the film catches up with Celeste as she’s prepping for a show in her hometown, when more tragedy happens and puts a new spin on the concert. She’s taking questions about her past, the present, and oh..doing drugs and drinking healthy amounts of alcohol. Throughout it all, she is not a pleasant person, ridiculing journalists, Eleanor, the manager, and anyone who gets in her way.

Portman saves this part of the film from flying off the rails. Another actress who didn’t lean into the role of a troubled woman who never had a chance to have a real childhood would have drowned the film in melodrama, but the Oscar-nominated actress seduces you into buying Celeste’s internal torment that the first hour didn’t easily pull off.

Problem #2: Portman and Cassidy  have completely different accents in the film while playing the same character. The younger actress works a normally flat tone in the early going, and then Portman’s character works up this heavy Staten Island tongue that fails to sync up with the other actress. It’s two different voices, and that nagged me.

Corbet, who also wrote the script, frames the film over a 17 year period, starting in 1999 (COLUMBINE!), stopping off in certain global disasters (9/11), and ending in 2017. You never fully understand the relevance of merging a tale about school shootings around the coming-of-age tale of a singer, and that messes with the tone of the film. Vox Lux wants to be a lot of things at once, but Corbet can’t decide where he wants the emphasis to be.

Problem #3: Willem Dafoe’s voiceover is ill-advised and doesn’t fit into the film well. It’s almost as if the story wasn’t strong enough in the beginning, and Corbet decided to add some footnotes to the film by having Dafoe break down certain complexities for the audience on the fly.

In jumping from a teenage pop star to an adult trainwreck, the audience misses out on a lot of story-building opportunities with Celeste, and that gives the film a jagged feel which never settles down. The movie races a bit and can leave you behind trying to understand why it stopped and where it is going.

Corbet may be trying to show us the dual effect of trauma at a young age. Along with seeing her teacher and classmates killed right in front of her, Celeste performed a song that skyrocketed her to fame, but perhaps she didn’t want to get on the ride in the first place. When you stack that inner-torment up over nearly two decades, it’s not hard to see why Celeste ends up where she does.

The biggest problem with Vox Lux is that I didn’t really know who Celeste was for the entire two hours. Watching this movie is like being a news junkie who usually reads the tabloids and watches the news for answers, but suddenly gets pulled into the life of a young (and older) celebrity for the real thing. It’s nerve-racking yet highly seductive. Like a news junkie, you can’t turn away from Corbet’s film no matter how uneven it gets due to the world he does create and the talent he puts inside of it.

The acting is top-notch across the board. Portman doesn’t act a lot these days, but when she does, it’s not a waste of your time. She takes a complicated woman built on questionable parts, and makes you care for her well-being even though she clearly doesn’t and find her irresistible even when she puts down everyone around her. Cassidy, who also plays Celeste’s daughter in a weird bit of casting, puts in strong work without a great amount of dialogue or expression. You get her pain, even if you don’t get her.

Law’s accent isn’t as heavy-handed as Portman’s and he gives the manager, who never gets a real name, enough substance to understand his presence. Martin is potent as a woman who has served her sister for the entirety of her life without any credit. Jennifer Ehle has a couple of good scenes as Celeste’s publicist. The actors truly help the film work.

Portman and Cassidy do their own singing from words written by Sia and Greg Kurstin, including a catchy ballad called, Wrapped Up. The songs do add something unique to the story and feel in tune with the screenplay.

Corbet is clearly trying to say something grand and poetic here about our world, its chaotic descent, and how that has fueled the decrepit nature of our modern youth, aka the millenials. The filmmaker’s desire to say something is apparent; the actual message and delivery is just faulty.

Here’s the funny part. I wanted to go back and watch the movie again. While imperfect and containing holes in its story and delivery, Corbet creates an exotic playground here for the moviegoer to spend some time in. There’s a cadence in his stroke. While you may not completely know Celeste, her story does connect on an emotional level, and sometimes that is all movies have to do.

Vox Lux has a lot on its mind and doesn’t have a proper way to channel all of it towards the viewer, but it makes you demand more in the end. That to me represents a win.

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