Helen Tope reviews Vox Lux, showing in our cinema until Thursday 27 June.
In cinema, we are used to seeing stories where our hero triumphs over the odds. Adversity is put in its place – our star takes to the stage, plays their song and the world listens.
At 13 years old, Celeste Morgan survives a school shooting. An event that leaves her with permanent spine damage, Celeste finds recovery in music. She writes songs with her older sister Eleanor from her hospital bed. Attending a memorial for her classmates, Young Celeste (played by Raffey Cassidy) cannot verbalise her horror, instead she has written a song about her grief. Sung to a bank of reporters and camera crews, Celeste’s form as a star takes hold. One of the cameramen sees more than just a moment of connection in Celeste’s future. An okay singer, a passable dancer, Celeste has something more important – potential.
The Manager (an excellent Jude Law) flies Celeste to Stockholm to work with the pop producer of the moment – the songs are the best of his career. The Manager has struck gold, and Celeste’s fame becomes inevitable.
In a bold narrative move, director Brady Corbet jumps us from Celeste’s ingénue phase straight into Celeste as global superstar. Featuring a brutally realist performance from Natalie Portman, Celeste’s trauma has never been addressed. The bullet scar on her neck is covered up with wraps and chokers. The softness of Celeste’s adolescence has fallen away to reveal a battle-hardened titan. As her team prepare for her Vox Lux concert (marking the release of her 6th studio album), Celeste tries to engage with her daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy). Born whilst Celeste was in her teens, their relationship is complicated by the fact that Celeste has failed to raise her – that duty has fallen to Eleanor (Stacey Martin).
As the clock ticks down to show-time, news breaks of a shooting at a beach resort in Croatia. The gunmen use face masks inspired by one of Celeste’s most famous videos. Celeste’s publicist (Jennifer Ehle) briefs her on how to respond. The 24-hour news cycle demands a response, and Celeste must tread carefully. Fierce, barbarous and tricky to handle, Celeste is in no mood to play the game.
A searing indictment of 21st century fame, Vox Lux (‘voice of light’ in Latin) doesn’t pull away from the reality of Celeste’s situation. A trauma, never properly examined, is left to fester. The sweet melodies of Celeste’s youth are replaced with power-pop anthems. Always on brand, Celeste hasn’t been swallowed by the machine, she has given herself to it, body and soul. But rather than fame saving her, and bringing us a brave new voice, she has submerged herself into the industry. Every last scrap of realness has been washed away. The narrator (voiced by Willem Dafoe) proudly tells us that Celeste still writes her own lyrics. We find out later that this is not true – her sister is now the driving force behind Celeste’s sound.
Celeste’s trauma is instead articulated in the gaps and detours of her chaotic life. The drinking binges, the DUI’s – the unsettled quality that follows Celeste is unshakable. Unable to confront the horror she has witnessed, Celeste’s trauma rules her, unopposed.
The question is whether Vox Lux shows us enough of Celeste’s struggle. As we jump from her early days, right into the eye of the storm, there is little room for character development. We are left to piece together what has happened in the intervening years. As a narrative technique, it is certainly ambitious, but the issue is whether it works for an audience. Portman does great work as the brittle, damaged woman, but the film shields, where it should expose.
Where Vox Lux convinces is in the treatment of fame. This is an insider’s peek at how the music industry has changed since Celeste’s debut. The millennium fashion for European producers, the importance of the music video. Moving through to 2017, and Celeste is struggling to make music pay: year round tours take the place of record sales. But what is made clear is that Celeste has willingly (and cleverly) weathered these changes, making them work for her. As she takes to the stage in the final scenes, Portman delivers a seasoned, slick show. It may not be art, but it is entertainment.
The songs – written by Sia especially for the film – are feel-good euphoria, perfect for a large-scale tour. But there is no intimacy in Celeste’s performance. Dressed in high-glam, explicitly referencing Lady Gaga, Celeste – for all her years of experience – has notably little to say.
With her sister producing the songs, Celeste has checked out of the creative process. Instead of healing through music, Celeste’s rage turns inwards. We do not get flashbacks as you might expect. Corbet instead makes the regression audible – an ambulance siren cutting through dialogue, the roar of a crowd that moves ambiguously from fear to joy – you are never quite sure what you are hearing. This is as close as we get to experiencing Celeste’s thought process. In the early part of her rehabilitation, she complains of a spinning sensation. It is chalked up as a physical symptom by her physiotherapist. Her adult life, not anchored to any kind of reality, is the product of a mind still in flux.
Celeste is locked into a world devoid of any normal interaction – her closest friends are all on the payroll. An old-timer at 31, Celeste’s closest ally, The Manager, is now a peripheral figure. Shuffling along hotel corridors, he and Celeste get high before the concert – their relationship now caught between colleague, lover and co-dependent.
It is in the concert that Celeste starts to make sense. Fully given over to the performance, Celeste glitters with a dark, pulsating energy. She delivers a makeshift speech to her followers – ‘angels’ – about not fitting in, and being different. But Celeste is as generic as they come. The things that make her different – her trauma and vulnerability – are painted over. We never get a glimpse of the girl pulled out of the classroom. A woman with experiences too frightening to be spoken out loud, she finds herself in singing someone else’s song. Music doesn’t save her – it merely sustains what is left.
As a satire on the music industry, Vox Lux is superb. As an exploration of trauma, Portman takes the film to another level. Hovering between death and life, Vox Lux’s nihilistic view of fame leaves us in no doubt we are in end-game territory. The star of Celeste, a voice of light, has nothing to offer us. As a conclusion, there is a grim satisfaction in knowing the truth.