By Preston Wilder
It’s an astonishing week at the Cyprus multiplex; I’ve never seen anything like it. All three new releases – Us, Dragged Across Concrete and Vox Lux – are bizarre, ambitious, boldly conceived, downright arty films that would challenge even a sophisticated big-city audience, let alone the adolescent superhero fans who tend to frequent our K-Cineplex. (For comic relief – or perhaps just ‘relief’ – there’s also Vourate Yitoni: The Movie.) These are all American movies, two of the three are indeed genre movies, but they’re not the buffed, airbrushed visions of America made for the global (read: Chinese) audience. They’re the films America makes for – and about – itself, reflecting its ongoing national nervous breakdown, scarred by the violent convulsions it’s experienced (along with the rest of the world) over the past two decades.
Vox Lux is entirely upfront about being a metaphor for the still-new millennium. “Celeste’s loss of innocence curiously mirrored that of the nation,” says the beautifully spoken – if slightly verbose – narration when young Celeste (Raffie Cassidy) finds her older sister in bed with her (Celeste’s) manager on the same September morning when planes crash into the World Trade Center. Put like that, it sounds a bit ridiculous – and the film does indeed court ridicule, being starkly apocalyptic and told largely through the heightened emotions of music, both a bombastic score by Scott Walker and the plastic-pop songs Celeste herself sings on the way to becoming a global superstar (the songs are by real-life superstar Sia). Some will find it merely pretentious. Get on its wavelength, however, and the mixture of keening sadness and cynical showbiz fable is overwhelming.
We open with gunshots, then a few minutes later Celeste suffers badly at the hands of a classmate named Cullen Active (note the surname). We see Cullen earlier, a lone figure coming out of the night and into a pool of neon on a dark, empty street – and the film’s eerie, desolate look is key to its impact, though 30-year-old director Brady Corbet’s most dazzling trick is to alternate that look with bold stylistic flourishes: a dream of an endless tunnel, a cut to a New York skyscraper looming up forbiddingly, a jittery comic montage on the joys of Stockholm. Our heroine is 13 going on 14 at the dawn of the new millennium, a serious, deeply devout girl caught in a nightmare – but she writes a song to express her emotions, and the song (the ‘I’ in the lyrics changed to ‘we’, on the advice of a record producer) becomes an anthem, catapulting her to stardom. The first hour is ‘Genesis’, the second ‘Regenesis’, Cassidy’s intense performance matched by an even more impassioned, swaggering turn by Natalie Portman as the older, burned-out Celeste, with Cassidy now playing her daughter.
Vox Lux is wildly ambitious. It means to encompass the whole world – the fall of faith and the rise of celebrity culture, 9/11 and the Parkland survivors and the massacre on that beach in Tunisia, above all the scared despairing texture of our “gaudy unliveable present which has reached an extreme of its cycle”. Our narrator steals that quote from Italo Calvino, another sign of Corbet’s pretensions – yet the film’s most profound relationship is perhaps with pop music, one of the quirks of the 21st century being that, even as the world has grown darker and more complicated, pop has grown sunnier, blander and more ubiquitous. Cullen used to listen to metal, says Celeste gravely, but her own music is different: “I don’t want people to have to think too hard. I just want them to feel good.”
Is the music supposed to be empty? Did Sia write these songs intending them to sound tuneless and tinny? This is not just an idle question. Vox Lux builds to music as apotheosis, like an artier Pitch Perfect – yet the grand finale is nothing but sensation and spectacle, a screen behind Celeste flashing random words while she pumps up the crowd with equally random empowerment rhetoric; her actual songs are barely audible and deeply unmemorable, yet that only makes them more poignant. The movie understands our desperate need for pop – our need for the joy of feelgood oblivion – even as it also understands that it’s empty and ephemeral. Does Celeste have the answers? Clearly not, but she’s all we’ve got.
Both lead actresses are hypnotically fine; Stacy Martin (the sister) and Jude Law (the manager) also try hard, but are stuck in underdeveloped roles. The film could’ve used a stronger script, especially the second half which largely coasts on Portman’s quicksilver energy – but the texture makes it gripping nonetheless, its restless air of pervasive malaise and penchant for sudden, visually startling epiphanies. Celeste is victim and goddess, “the new faith”, a lightning-rod for the whole world’s suffering, a little girl who was never allowed to grow up. Vox Lux leans in close to her brave, confused, angry resilience, which is also the resilience – and anger – of Corbet’s generation, forced to come of age in this mixed-up millennium. In a jaw-dropping week of perverse, highly imaginative movies, Vox Lux is perhaps the most perverse, and the most jaw-dropping.
DIRECTED BY Brady Corbet
STARRING Natalie Portman, Raffie Cassidy, Jude Law
US 2018 114 mins