2018 Film Essays

‘Vox Lux,’ 21st Century Trauma and Healing Through Pop Culture

In its closing credits, Vox Lux calls itself “a 21st century portrait.” But of what? This portrait isn’t just of a rising pop star or her fall back to earth. Even though gun violence plays several key roles in the story, the movie definitely isn’t about gun control. It doesn’t care about predictable outcomes, a traditional structure, morals or issues with foreseeable solutions. Vox Lux is about the pain that defines our modern times and the tenuous ways we cope with it. With all the mass shootings, terrorist attacks and cannibalistic behavior we’ve adopted, trauma is nothing special. Trauma is the new ennui.

That may sound cynical, but Vox Lux is too amoral to be cynical. It’s cold and cruel — maybe even bitter — but not cynical.

Directed by Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader), Vox Lux operates in a snow globe that shifts from frigid sadness to camp-influenced satire. It’s brash, bold and boisterous, and like if Nicolas Winding Refn distilled a Bob Fosse or John Cassavetes film and caked it in Eurotrash, it manages to split the difference between retrospection and immediacy. The movie even opens with its would-be pretentions on its sleeve with a title card that reads “Prologue,” narration from Willem Dafoe and another card that says “Genesis.” Dafoe’s voice tells the story of Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy) like if God did an episode of Behind the Music, but that majesty doesn’t last long as Corbet plunges into the tragedy that comes to define her. In the world of Vox Lux, people are as only as interesting as the worst thing that’s ever happened to them.

At the turn of the millennium, 13-year-old Celeste falls victim to a horrific school shooting highly reminiscent of the Columbine massacre. Corbet doesn’t try to hide the allusions either: of a boy in a black trench coat, of a student hoisting himself out of a window, of a bomb going off. That’s because — as the film will soon declare — two things define our current times: unspeakable traumas and the media we use to cope.

Celeste barely survives the shooting, and it seems as if America barely survives with her. She has a bullet permanently lodged in her neck, and with the help of her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), she channels her grief into songwriting, quickly becoming a beacon of hope by happenstance. It doesn’t take long for an unnamed manager (Jude Law) to exploit her pain. He’s as archetypal as everyone else and claims to “guide” her. He makes Celeste into a superstar, flies her to Stockholm and Los Angeles, and catapults her into the mainstream. Why? Because she appears to have some sort of perseverance — because the public is desperate.

And who can blame them? There’s a scene later on where Celeste meets a punk singer and tells him why she loves pop music. “I don’t want to make people think too much,” she says, filmed with the aloofness of a 1930s starlet. “I just want them to feel good.”

That might help numb the pain, but maybe that’s where the real tragedy lies. The biggest weakness of the characters in Vox Lux is their unwillingness to think, and while people may heal by way of pop culture, no one really heals together. Celeste speaks of her PTSD-addled nightmares, her inability to grow from victim to survivor and how her voice only stems from playing into society’s love for media. However, no one really hears her. They just listen to her. Corbet’s film isn’t bitter towards pop culture, per se. It’s bitter towards the distance that society places between its creators and audiences, which lessens its impact.

Soon afterwards, the film jumps forward 16 years. It’s 2017 and Celeste (now played by Portman) is an absentee mother whose daughter Albertine (also played by Cassidy) resents her. She’s now beyond an archetype, somehow having adopted an outlandish Staten Island accent beyond what she sounded like as a kid. After her manager pimped her out — and the nation as a whole — beyond repair, she fell into a catacomb of semi-survival. She’s resorted to thrashing about with the utmost absurdity — not because she likes it, but because it’s what she was told she needed to do.

This type of behavior doesn’t just apply to Celeste, though; it applies to survivors of any trauma. Humans are so hardwired for connection that denial only leads to more and more loneliness, and Celeste in particular oscillates between ignoring her trauma and barely expressing her emotions with catchy (and, on occasion, almost sterile) pop tunes. This has been her main way of healing since the shooting, and it remains her essence despite the works’ shifts in tone, which further speaks to the film’s opinions on pop culture, several of which are more positive than people may think.

In “Wrapped Up,” which Celeste and Eleanor wrote after the shooting and catapulted the former into the spotlight, she gets her closest to an outright cry for help:

“Please, I will follow

‘Cause you’re my last hope

I’ll do anything you say

And I tried it my way

And I failed

Save me from myself”

But that doesn’t work, so her words get broader and easier to digest in “Alive,” which has a chorus consisting of simple repetition and self-empowerment themes that are as archetypal as the people selling them. That gives way to even more sanitized studio work that’s generally irrelevant to Celeste’s life in “Your Body Talk,” but she manages to sneak in more expressions of trauma into the up-tempo trip-pop ballad “Hologram (Smoke and Mirrors).” The lyrics — which she was writing at this point in her career — evoke the nation’s overall trauma and its aftershocks. It cleverly uses the formula of breakup song — but, at its core, it’s written about and to Celeste’s attacker himself:

“Now I fear you’ll be back

Inside all the cracks

No, I can’t handle that

Your story’s heartbreak

Was in my mind

Now I no longer cry

I no longer cry

Now I blocked you out

I just want you gone

I need to be alone

[…] Now the power’s out

And you are sitting there

What an illusion

I could have sworn that you were there

Smoke and mirrors

You are just a hollow man

Hologram”

Comparatively speaking, Celeste’s mid-2010s work lacks such nuance, but this is by design. Ten-time Grammy-nominee Sia wrote all of the songs for Vox Lux, but the pieces featured in the film’s concert finale range from somewhat earnest to — in the context of the film’s more satirical elements — parodistic of real pop songs. (“Firecracker” echoes Katy Perry’s “Firework” but is in the first person rather than second; “Sweat and Tears” is similar to Perry’s “Peacock” in message, chord progression and tempo; “Private Girl” is a shameless riff on Madonna’s “Material Girl.”) Celeste’s “EKG” is the most similar to her earlier work in terms of alluding to trauma, and while it may have a simpler composition, it further shows how she copes through music.

Some have found Corbet’s depiction of pop music to be condescending, but there are no real depictions of “bad” pop music in the film. Even though Vox Lux involves industry exploitation, none of it is inherent to pop. It happens in movies, television, internet culture and more, and even if some of Celeste’s later work isn’t “good,” per se, it’s catchy. But most importantly, it does just what it’s meant to do: it makes people feel good.

In Vox Lux, pop music is an emblem of pop culture and the distractions we use to soften the growing trauma of the nation. It also plays into the main question that Corbet raises: just how long can we cling onto pop culture before society gets so bad that nothing will help? Add to the fact that Celeste is a stand-in for America and the film isn’t that cynical. It’s actually quite objective. It’s cold and cruel, sure, but that isn’t cynical — that’s detached at most. It all fits extremely well given what Celeste has gone through. It’s fitting given what she doesn’t understand: the pop-addicted world she fell into; the inner-circle that fed her greatest fears; the “rebirth” at this point in her career. The effects last forever.

When a reporter asks about another tragedy reminiscent of her own, Celeste shrugs it off with a poorly calibrated joke. When she sits at a diner with her daughter and “Alive” starts playing, she crumbles, because pop music really can have that kind of impact. And while Celeste may try to connect with her daughter, she can’t help but see her younger, more innocent self: the woman who was once wasn’t perverted by the trauma of the 21st century.

As Celeste prepares for a concert towards the end of Vox Lux, she suffers another breakdown. Even when her loved ones try to help, all she can muster is another cry: “I am sick of everybody treating me like I’m not a person!”

So, Celeste channels that trauma into a performance. But the cruel joke of Vox Lux is that the nation’s trauma was never resolved, and — as a result — its art suffered. The choreography is clichéd; the voice is shouty and synthetic. The performance is as plastic as the body suit Celeste thrashes around in, hoping that someone will see her for who she’s trying to be.

And at the end of the day, no one seems to really see Celeste’s pain — no one that can truly help her. But maybe it’s okay since she made so many others feel better. At least those people aren’t thinking. At least they just feel good.

At least they do for now.

Matt Cipolla (@cipollamatt) is a film critic and essayist for hire who has worked with the FilmMonthly.com, WGN Radio, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Crooked Marquee and more. He has also co-recorded a historical commentary track for Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, due to be released by Kino Lorber Studio Classics in 2019.

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