Vox Lux


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Vox Lux
"Even its vapidity fails to contribute anything new to the subject matter it's dealing with."

Celeste makes pop music, she says, because it's uplifting. It's an escape from all the ills of the world.

She has reason for wanting to focus on the positive. The event that launched her career was intensely traumatic: a boy she vaguely knew appearing in her classroom one day, shooting her teacher, then gunning down the kids. The first thing we notice about the boy is his black clothing and eye make-uop, and that's the first hint of what's wrong with this picture. The trenchcoat mafia motif, born out of the notion that the Columbine killers were goths, has never stood up to examination. What it has done is to ensure that vulnerable kids, outsiders, get scapegoated whilst the real problems go unaddressed - but it's an easy visual reference point so Vox Lux uses it. Later, our heroine will make similar fashion choices herself. It's different for her because when she dallies with darkness, she doesn't mean it. She doesn't mean very much.

Copy picture

The school shooting and her musical response to it, written by a sister (Stacy Martin) whose talent will remain unacknowledged despite a lifetime of devotion, propels Celeste to pop stardom and into the orbit of a manager whom the script never deigns to name. He's played by Jude Law, who seems to relish being free from the burden of his youthful prettiness, and although he's less abusive than many in the business he has limited patience with the fact she's a child. Her parents - whom one might expect to cling to their child tightly after the trauma of the shooting, even if only for show - are nowhere to be seen; she's alone in the world but for her sister and one can easily imagine them, a few more decades down the line, living like the sisters in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?. She's overwhelmed, but somehow she keeps it together. Somewhere along the line, alcohol becomes a friend. And that's about it. This is rock n' roll, the film seems to boast. But we knew that.

As an adult, Celeste is played by Natalie Portman; as a teenager, by Raffey Cassidy, who also goes on to play her daughter, Albertine. Cassidy gives a notably better performance and so closely resembles the older actress physically that one is reminded of how Tehilla Blad has repeatedly played a young version of Noomi Rapace - there's the same uncanny similarity. Portman clearly enjoys playing the obnoxious, self-centred star, breaking with the past like Helena Bonham Carter trashing her previous porcelain characters in Fight Club. The trouble is that she doesn't bring much else to the role. Brady Corbet's script doesn't give her much to work with. He's much better at slipping in witty references to her past characters than he is at building a new one.

All of this is very prettily photographed and wittily framed, As director, Corbet has a visual style that is truly eye-catching. The trouble is that it makes all this look like one long pop music video, with about as much substance. Everything is very meta, richly imbued with outdated irony. Willem Dafoe's Morgan Freeman impression as narrator is amusing but nothing he says is necessary; ditto the self-conscious slicing up of the action into acts. It's always troubling to have to criticise a filmmaker for pretension because one doesn't want to discourage the risk-taking from which great art can emerge, but Corbet's approach implies a sense of entitlement to have his work seen as art, and it just doesn't make the grade. It's technically competent and pleasing to look at but emotionally hollow. Even its vapidity fails to contribute anything new to the subject matter it's dealing with.

Despite a half-hearted attempt to achieve depth through a last-minute revelation, the film is every bit as superficial as its boring heroine. Ultimately we are reminded that whilst they like to think they're bold and different and making a statement, pretty much all school shooters are the same: kids who enjoy plenty of advantages in life, aggrieved because they haven't got enough attention, delivering an hour or two of flashes and bangs which most of the world will forget about within a week. Ditto Vox Lux. There is light here but no enlightenment.

Reviewed on: 30 Jan 2019
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A survivor of a school shooting goes on to become a pop star.
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Director: Brady Corbet

Writer: Brady Corbet

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Fred Hechinger, Matt Servitto, Natasha Romanova, Daniel London, Candace Smith, Micheál Richardson, Sophie Lane Curtis, Chris Banks, Allison Winn, Nastasha Strang

Year: 2018

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: US

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