Brady Corbet‘s new drama Vox Lux opens with a bang — literally. Without warning, we’re thrust into the middle of a brutal school shooting in 1999 (the same year as Columbine). A brave 13-year-old girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) interrupts the blood-curdling screams of her classmates and begs the gunman to stop, offering to wait with him so the police don’t shoot him on sight. It’s too late, he tells her, and proceeds to open fire on his peers. Celeste is shot in the face, and as the opening credits roll, we watch as an ambulance speeds towards a hospital, a young life hanging in the balance.
This is a dynamite opening sequence, and while it may not be what audiences are expecting from a film about a pop star, it sets the stage for the story that follows, one that is (rather pretentiously) narrated by none other than Willem Dafoe. See, the ensuing memorial service is covered by the national media, and Celeste sings an emotional tribute song to her fallen classmates, one that resonates with listeners around the world. In an instant, a star is born — but this is a far cry from Bradley Cooper’s update of that time-worn tale. Sure, she’s swallowed up by the hype machine, signing with a smooth-talking (and nameless) music manager played by Jude Law, but this star is quickly turned into a symbol by the media. The catch is that symbols mean different things to different people. To some, Celeste is a survivor who becomes a symbol of strength, but to others, she merely symbolizes everything wrong with celebrity.
Sure enough, nearly two decades later, Celeste has transformed into a heavily-accented Lady Gaga-like pop star (now played by Oscar winner Natalie Portman) with a teenage daughter of her own named Albertine (again played by Cassidy). Her sister (Stacy Martin) remains the primary member of her entourage, and she’s tasked with keeping an eye on her young niece while Law’s character keeps his eye on Celeste. The singer is preparing for a day of press in advance of the launch of her new world tour, when there’s another terrorist attack, with a group of gunmen opening fire at a Croatian beach resort while wearing masks that pay homage to one of Celeste’s more famous music videos. These terrorists will live on in infamy. The question is, did Celeste help create or encourage these monsters, or did they create her? Who is indebted to whom? And is this cyclical history doomed to repeat itself?
The rest of the film follows Celeste as she balances the demands of being a celebrity, a parent and an addict — aided in part by her manager-cum-lover Law and a publicist played by Jennifer Ehle. We also see Celeste face her PTSD head on, so regardless of whether she owes her career to the school shooting or whether she transcended that tragic incident, she refuses to let it define her. The music and lyrics (as written by real-life pop star Sia) were always a part of her, buried inside her — they just needed a reason to come out.
Portman is an absolute powerhouse here, so much so that even though she’s only in half the film, her work is good enough to merit a Best Actress nomination. She gives a fearless, ferocious performance, and while some critics may prefer her turn in Annihilation, to me the degree of difficulty is much higher here, as Celeste is an incredibly demanding role, both physically and emotionally. Cassidy does a wonderful job playing the younger version of Portman, as well as her progeny. The 16-year-old actress is undeniably gifted — which shouldn’t come as a surprise if you caught The Killing of a Sacred Deer or her scene-stealing turn in Tomorrowland — and she brings a lot of heart and soul to each of the two characters she plays here. And yet, as good as both actresses are, the real star of Vox Lux is its writer and director.
Corbet was once a well-respected teen actor himself whose turns in Gregg Araki‘s Mysterious Skin and Michael Haneke‘s perverse remake of his own thriller Funny Games signaled a bright future in front of the camera. But Corbet clearly belongs behind the camera these days, as Vox Lux (and his acclaimed debut Childhood of a Leader) proves he’s a natural filmmaker. In addition to Haneke, Corbet appears to have learned a lot from the other international masters he’s worked with, such as Olivier Assayas, Mia Hansen-Løve and Lars Von Trier, with regards to movement, stillness and shock value. This is a very assured film featuring confident direction that would be surprising from a filmmaker with twice as much experience as Corbet. Seriously, this movie feels well beyond the grasp and control of most 30-year-old directors, so kudos to Corbet for his maturity and discipline as a filmmaker. Juxtaposing celebrity and terrorism and drawing a link between the two is heavy-duty stuff and a lot for a young filmmaker to tackle, but Corbet pulls it off with steel-nerved aplomb. This is a bold, deeply penetrating and uncompromising work, even if the recipe perhaps has one too many ingredients. It may not fully come together, but you’ll applaud the attempt all the same.
I’ve heard multiple producers and execs have come away from meetings with Corbet impressed with his intelligence, his resolve as a filmmaker, and his vision as a storyteller, and it’s hard to argue with those takeaways after seeing Vox Lux. This is a haunting, ambitious film that may make some viewers uncomfortable, but I can totally see why Neon picked it up out of Toronto. Corbet will reteam with two of the producers of Vox Lux for his next film The Brutalist, which follows an architect who emigrates to the United States in 1947 and spends the next three decades developing his masterpiece. Again, that isn’t the type of film that most young white men dream of making, but Corbet is obviously cut from a different cloth. Whatever deal Celeste made with the Devil, here’s hoping Corbet made a similar one and is allowed to retain that unique sense of perspective. To lose him to the Hollywood machine that churns out the cinematic equivalent of generic pop music would be its own special form of artistic terrorism.