FILM REVIEW – VOX LUX. With Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Jennifer Ehle, Stacy Martin. Written and directed by Brady Corbet. Rated R for language, some strong violence, and drug content. 110 minutes.
VOX LUX is an ambitious film that proves to be less than the sum of its parts. It’s going to be tough to engage audiences, but fans of Natalie Portman won’t want to miss her risk-taking performance here.
Those looking for a plot should look elsewhere. Things happen but there’s no real story here. Billed as a “Twenty-First Century Portrait,” the intent seems to be to use the rise and fall and possible rise again of rock star Celeste as a metaphor for America. In a prologue set in 1999, fourteen-year-old Celeste (an impressive Raffey Cassidy) is the survivor of a horrific event that will cast a shadow on the rest of her life. The film then moves into the first of two sections, set around 2000-2001, where Celeste slowly recovers from her injuries, and then gains fame performing a song written by her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) at a memorial service.
This leads to her embarking on a musical career, under the tutelage of her manager (Jude Law). As the Narrator (Willem Dafoe) tells us, this at first leads to the two sisters forming a closer bond but ends with a loss of innocence that sends them in separate directions. The second half of the film is set in 2017 where the adult Celeste (Portman) is planning what she refuses to call a “comeback” in connection with her new album. In conversation we learn of her troubles in the intervening years including alcohol and drug abuse, and a near-fatal car accident for which she was responsible. It culminates – as did the recent “Bohemian Rhapsody” – with a triumphant concert.
So what is the point? If Celeste is a metaphor for America, then the path she travels ought to tell us something about the past two decades. In some ways it does, as Celeste’s complex relationships with both Eleanor and her own daughter Albertine (played by Cassidy), show someone who can be abusive or neglectful or loving and supportive, all the while barely in control of her own life. Perhaps the film’s ultimate statement is the reactions of her fans at the concert, who are clearly entertained and uplifted by their idol’s performance.
Writer-director Brady Corbet favors long, talky scenes which sometimes work and sometimes bring the film to a halt. A scene with her wanting some “alone time” with her daughter goes on far too long, with the payoff given not to the two actresses but to the narrator. Portman, sporting a “Noo Yawk” accent, offers a complicated portrait of someone at the top, yet still carrying the burden of her past. Law has a few pertinent scenes as her manager, but it’s really the relations between the sisters and mother and daughter that carry the film’s weight. When we see Eleanor and Albertine react at the concert, it’s clear there are no pat answers to summing up Celeste’s life.
Perhaps that’s the point of “Vox Lux,” where modern American history is divided as before and after 9/11. Seventeen years later, it’s still not clear what America is becoming, just as Celeste has to examine and re-invent herself as she figures out how to go forward.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.