Director: Brady Corbet
Screenwriter: Brady Corbet, from a story by Corbet and Mona Fastvold.
Runtime: 114 mins.
Australian release date: 21 February 2019
Previewed at: Verona Cinema, Paddington, Sydney, on 21 February 2019.
“There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware.”
The words of the classic Buffalo Springfield song from 1967 seem to be an apt description of Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux. The film is a strange meld of the rise to fame of a mega rock star and acts of modern-day terrorism, both domestic and international, and how these two strands interconnect. It bills itself, in the closing credits, as ‘A Twenty First Century Portrait’ but it could just have easily been called ‘A Portrait of the Twenty First Century (and Its Values… or Lack Thereof)’. US actor Brady Corbet’s sophomore film as director is almost as enigmatic as his 2015 debut, The Childhood Of A Leader, and it reunites some of his collaborators on that title, namely co-writer Mona Fastvold, composer Scott Walker, cinematographer Lol Crawley and French actress Stacy Martin. Directorially, Corbet has a great sense of mise-en-scène but, script-wise, he sure doesn’t make things easy for his audience. Granted, that can be a good thing, although hard for a 30-year-old novice writer to pull off successfully, but you certainly couldn’t accuse him of lacking ambition.
The unmistakable voice of Willem Dafoe opens Vox Lux as a self-contained home-movie montage informs us about the childhood of two musically talented sisters, Eleanor (‘Ellie’) and Celeste Montgomery, before the film flashes forward to 1999, where the girls are now in their teens and at high school. In a harrowing scene, a kid dressed Goth-style enters the classroom where Celeste (English actress Raffey Cassidy) is seated and shoots the teacher, before herding the students to the back of the room and opening fire on them. Miraculously, Celeste survives a bullet to the neck and, after a lengthy recuperation, resumes her life relatively unscathed. While recovering at home, she and Ellie (Stacy Martin) compose a poignant song about the incident and the pair play it at a memorial service at their church, Ellie on keyboards and Celeste singing. When the song takes off, Celeste is suddenly rocketed to national fame. Taken under the wing of a talent manager (Jude Law), and with the aid of her sister, Celeste’s career as a pop singer grows to superstar status. Another leap forward to 2017 and the 31-year-old artist (now played by Natalie Portman) is about to re-start her career with a home-town concert, after a traffic accident stopped her from touring. She is also mother to a teenage daughter, Albertine (Raffey Cassidy again), and is no longer the sweet kid we’d met earlier. In fact, she’s a monster: a cynical, spoilt, pampered, full-on, 24/7 rock goddess, with an acid tongue and a taste for illicit drugs.
Portman delivers a blistering performance as her character teeters on the edge of sobriety and sanity. Celeste’s no fool and is well aware of her place in the global pop music pantheon and acknowledges that her time in the spotlight was primarily due to the 1999 shooting tragedy. Corbet gives Portman a fabulous speech, made to Albertine in a restaurant, about the cultural and social workings of fame in the 21st century. Young Cassidy is a revelation in her dual role as Celeste and Albertine, both of whom are entirely different due to the different centuries in which they were born. Thanks to Crawley’s sharp 35mm. lensing, Vox Lux looks as shiny and bright as the world it represents. Scott Walker’s score is, as with most of his work, complex and unusual but perfectly placed in a story of this nature, and Sia and her co-composers have come up with a host of songs that could conceivably come from the mouth of a Madonna or a Lady Gaga.
Corbet says that Vox Lux “chronicles key events and cultural patterns that have so far defined the early 21st century via [Celeste’s] gaze,” and that seems like a fair summary of the film. The words of Stephen Stills, however, provide an even better one - “There’s something happening here, [but] what it is ain’t exactly clear.”