Brady Corbet seems particularly interested in twisted coming of age stories. His directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader, focuses on an angry and vicious little boy before jumping a few years ahead for a shocking reveal. Corbet’s follow up, Vox Lux, adopts the same approach to explore — or rather to directly state as fact — the long term consequences of brutal violence in today’s media-obsessed world.
Fourteen-year-old Celeste (Natalie Portman) is the sole survivor of a school shooting that occurred in her music class, and although she has to undergo re-education, she manages to walk again and even pens a song in tribute to the victims which leads to worldwide success for her and her song-writing partner, Eleanor (Stacy Martin). Corbet doesn’t go about it subtly in any regard: the shooting is as much a horrific surprise for its victims as it is for the spectator, which wouldn’t necessarily be objectionable if Corbet made something out of this brutality. Michael Haneke (by whom Corbet is clearly inspired) gets to be abrasive because he understands both the issues he discusses and the cinematic language. Cache is harrowing, and it explores the hypocrisy of post-colonial France with precision and honesty. Vox Lux, from the opening sequence onwards, remains on the surface of the violence it pretends to analyse, and Corbet’s directing choices end up exacerbating the very problem he tries to exorcise.
It is with the same superficiality (bordering on exploitation) that Corbet views pop music. When Celeste — having signed a record deal and about to go on a promotional tour for her upcoming album — has to take a dancing class, the camera lingers on her teacher’s swirling body with a purposeless insistence. Her craft itself is not the focus, and Celeste isn’t going through any particular emotion. This disinterested yet voyeuristic eye looks at Celeste’s comeback performance in New York City when, now a paranoid 32-year-old-idol, she performs her new album, “Vox Lux,” on stage. The lights and the colourful costumes are just noise, which Corbet certainly means them to be, but this looks more like cruelty than constructive cynicism. Never does the viewer get to see just why the audience loves Celeste’s less-than-average songs. All one gets to consider is why her fans shouldn’t love her anymore.
Portman has proven time and again that she isn’t afraid of transformation for her roles. Her performance in Vox Lux is committed, and she is as convincing as she can be when working from Corbet’s affected lines. Unfortunately for her, the film relies heavily on this poor dialogue to communicate its ideas, leaving little space for a real characterisation. A better crazed rockstar can be seen at TIFF in Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, where Elisabeth Moss gets to have a wide emotional spectrum and a personal history that she has a deep connection to. Celeste, by contrast, is nothing but a proxy for Corbet’s obvious criticism of the damages of violence and fame. Even her singing and dancing is half-baked, which is surprising as Portman demonstrated such skills as a ballet dancer in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Of course, this incompetence is by design, but it doesn’t make Vox Lux believable. By being so lazy and aggressive with his judgment of pop culture, Corbet ends up making a film that is bland in its anger, annoying in its attacks and ridiculous in its contempt for its characters and audience.
Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to The Ringer, Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.