Vox Lux, the latest from Brady Corbet, is a boisterous and risky look into how healing from tragedy can be inspired by pop music. Though its underlying message is thoroughly existent throughout the film, it is the purpose and sincerity that gets lost over its three acts. Celeste Montgomery, played by Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman, is the film’s centerpiece and explanation for what happens when we turn tragedy into success. Her sister, Eleanor, is also a survivor. Plagued by a violent and gruesome event early in their lives, the sisters go on to use their emotions the best way they know how – Celeste with her voice, and Eleanor with her song writing. Eventually, this leads to Celeste’s rise in stardom and fame, but at a price.
Corbet’s choices throughout the film offer an intriguing style and method of storytelling. For one, the story is depicted in three acts with consistent in-and-out narration from William Dafoe. It works because of the film’s intent for the audience – to understand how tragedy can sometimes intertwine with popular culture. But what Corbet intends for the audience to experience gets lost in the film’s over-explanation and misguided dialogue. And at times, it’s the fault of the narration. In this case, showing over telling would’ve been the way to go.
One of the more interesting surprises, besides one of the opening (albeit triggering) sequences, is the film’s inconsistent levels of achievement. The first half of the film, for instance, is excellent. It truly reflects how music can be a savior to us at our darkest times. Raffey Cassidy demonstrates incredible skill in her performance as the young Celeste, her presence as a rising star, and later as older Celeste’s teenage daughter. She portrays innocence and curiosity with care and assurance. Conversely, the second half of the film loses its purity and achievement from the first. Celeste, now played by Natalie Portman, becomes submerged in her own stardom and grandiosity, and audiences are forced to realize that fame isn’t always what it seems to be, especially if there are demons haunting you from your past.
The idea of clinging to fame to mask hurt isn’t necessarily the downfall of the film’s second half, however. It is the lack of conviction with which the characters, dialogue and story emphasizes its purpose of this message. For one, Portman’s depiction of older Celeste is a bit uncomfortable. The way she externalizes her character’s internal struggles feels silly – like a terrible and exacerbated, first-time stage play performance. However, at other times, she reveals her brilliance perfectly. So, suffice it to say, it is difficult to watch because it’s too uneven. Additionally, one of the defining moments in Celeste’s life becomes a constant topic of conversation in the second and third acts. However, Corbet decided that it wasn’t necessary to show despite it being a monumental event in Celeste’s life and the plot. Choices like these eventually lead to final moments that feel less like triumphs & more like underwhelming occurrences.
But when the film isn’t too hung up on its overzealous strategy of connecting violent tragedies and pop music, there are some beautiful moments in the film, though overshadowed by abrupt disruptions. The character connections and production, for instance, are standouts. The film beautifully portrays how feelings, if buried, can lead to tumultuous relationships with those we are supposed to love. And in the end, if left overtaken and replaced by something else (in this case, pop music and fame), it can lead to a series of problems that not even all of the money in the world can fix. Unfortunately, the film’s message of pop music as a savior will be hard for audiences to commit to because the songs, singing and performances are mediocre and forgettable.
In the end, watching Vox Lux as a whole feels like watching two different films – the first being about the beautiful depiction of a young girl using her survival to thrust forward an opportunity of healing through pop music. The second is a film about how music doesn’t necessarily heal but instead buries the hurt into oblivion. Between the triggering content of the national tragedies embedded throughout the film and the contradictory messages about Pop Music as a personal savior, Vox Lux will surely leave movie-goers divided. But one thing’s for sure, though there is plenty that doesn’t land in the film, its content is certainly important when reflecting on how society uses tragedy in popular culture.