Taken together, the two films of Brady Corbet comprise a how-to guide for “Making a Monster.” 2016’s excellent “The Childhood of a Leader” showed how a bratty diplomat’s son became a fascist dictator.
Now, in “Vox Lux,” the teenage survivor of a school shooting grows up to become an unhinged, self-destructive pop star. Despite a go-for-broke performance by Natalie Portman, the combination of real-world horror and celebrity fluff mixes together about as awkwardly as you might expect.
Corbet wants to say something about our era, how we’re living through the most serious and least serious of times simultaneously. But it’s an ambitious failure.
Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is a 14-year-old in Staten Island in 2000 who miraculously survives a school shooting that claims many of her classmates. Corbet shoots the carnage in unsparing, bloody detail.
While recuperating in the hospital from her injuries, Celeste and her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) write a song honoring the victims. When they perform it at a memorial service, the moment goes viral nationwide, and soon a seedy producer (Jude Law) swoops in and coaxes her into pursuing a music career.
Any unsavory aspects to using a school shooting to springboard a pop music career are ignored, and in fact the shooting doesn’t seem to haunt Celeste much at all. The film effectively shows the whirlwind of life in the music business, with Celeste and her sister shuttled off from hotels to recording studios to planes. Willem Dafoe provides sardonic voiceover narration of Celeste’s transformation from victim to celebrity.
This half of the movie ends with Celeste discovering her sister is sleeping with her producer on the morning of 9/11. “Celeste’s loss of innocence curiously mirrored that of the nation,” Dafoe says, in what has to be one of the most regrettable movie lines of 2018.
The second half of the movie jumps forward to 2017, and again starts with a shooting — this time terrorists dressed in mirrored masks shooting up a beach in Croatia. The mirrored masks may be a gruesome homage to a video Celeste shot. This is bad PR for the pop star, now 31, played by Natalie Portman and trying to jumpstart her flagging career.
But that’s just the latest in a series of scandals and missteps for Celeste, who has grown from the naïve girl we saw in the first half of the film into a self-pitying, reckless showboat fond of high drama and conspiracy theories, with herself always as the victim. Cassidy now plays Celeste’s estranged teenage daughter, Albertine, and when the two talk together in a diner, it’s like Celeste’s older and younger selves colliding.
Whatever motivates Celeste, whatever is going on inside her head, is kept a secret from the viewer, who largely watches her bad behavior from a distance. Portman’s performance deliberately keeps us at arm’s length, playing a celebrity who is the living embodiment of “Never meet your heroes.”
“Vox Lux” ends with an extended concert sequence that Corbet shoots as if it is a concert film, with the viewer watching from the crowd, far away from Celeste. Maybe that’s the point — that Celeste is an empty shell, and the “truest” version of herself is the façade she puts up to the world to sell tickets and T-shirts. But that’s not a terribly interesting person to spend two hours with.
It also is a facile way of dismissing pop music as brainless, soulless eye candy, rather than digging into its appeal for both performer and audience. “A Star Is Born” did a much better job showing the reality inside the pop music world (probably because Lady Gaga lives and breathes it), rather than settling for lazy social critique.
Corbet's ambition ends up being the undoing of "Vox Lux."