The conundrum of stardom — how it’s made and how it’s perceived — is central to Vox Lux, a new film from director Brady Corbet. Set against the major tragedies of the last two decades, the film advances a theory of pop music as a shield that both protects and obscures the horrors of the modern world. “That’s what I love about pop music,” the main character, a teen pop idol named Celeste, says to a moody and drugged-out older rock star toward the film’s midway point. “I don’t want people to think too hard.”
Pop music also allows Celeste — played as a teenager in the first half by Raffey Cassidy and as an adult in the second half by Natalie Portman — to escape her own tragedy. In the opening scene, set in 1999, we see her survive a mass shooting at her Staten Island high school — a loose recreation of the Columbine massacre. She enters the spotlight when she’s captured on camera singing a song at a memorial service for her fellow students. Quickly, she procures a manager and public relations specialist (played by Jude Law and Jennifer Ehle) to craft her image. The young victim who escaped death baring her soul becomes a symbol the public can stand behind in the face of brutality.
But what was fragile and specific becomes smooth and generalized; pain quickly turns into commercial entertainment. The film sets this first half up as an allegorical loss of innocence, dominated by a bombastic orchestral score by Scott Walker, himself a former pop star. Loud, sustained howls fill the soundtrack, overwhelming the action and pushing it into high-drama. After a trip to Stockholm, where Celeste records songs for a planned album (the pop songs in the film were composed by Sia), she flies to Los Angeles to shoot her first music video on the eve of September 11th. As the plane hovers over the city at night, the music shrieks as if it’s descending into hell.
Corbet, as you might be able to tell, isn’t subtle with his allusions. Broken up into two chapters — Genesis and Regenesis — and littered with references to both god and the devil, Vox Lux views pop stardom as serving a dual function: it is both sickness and cure, dancing around a feedback loop of soft pleasures and heavy violence.
The second half of the film, which jumps forward to 2017, opens with another moment of violence: terrorists in Croatia fire guns into a beach resort while wearing sparkly masks made popular in one of Celeste’s music videos. Now older, and more rough around the edges, the singer is on the verge of performing a comeback show in Staten Island when she hears the news. As she strides through the hallways of a hotel and later the backstage area of the concert venue, accompanied by a slew of followers — including her teenage daughter (played by Raffey Cassidy in a bit of double casting) and once-confidant sister (Stacy Martin) — it’s hard to see where the “real” Celeste begins and ends. Her bursts of language, with an outerboro brogue that touches on parody, sling between poetic bromides (“It doesn’t matter if you’re Michelangelo or Micky and Angelo from New Brighton”) and head-spinning provocations (“I have more hits than a 30-round AK-47 magazine”). Personal problems have merged with the persona. What is a performance and what is truth?
Vox Lux navigates this slippery terrain in a way that can be frustrating. Throughout the film, a narrator, voiced by Willem Dafoe, interjects with asides that, at times, seem obvious and heavy-handed; in one tangent, for example, he explains Sweden’s embrace of pop sounds in fear of the encroaching influence of jazz. It feels like an afterthought or unnecessary reinforcement. The film is at its best, and most terrifying, when it remains oblique. When it tries to explain itself or overstate its themes, it risks simplification.
As in The Childhood of a Leader, Corbet’s parallel-themed first feature, enough happens on screen to communicate what is not said. The dark, moody palette of the film’s naturalistic first half — winter greys, blues, and browns — gives way to a colorful, chaotic closer. Bathed in a red glow, Celeste steps on the stage during the film’s final moments flocked by backup dancers. They shine like deities. Words are projected on a screen behind the stage, stripped of their meaning: BABY, TOUCH, PREY. Spaced-out, Celeste goes through the motions. She knows the moves, knows what to say. But her words are hollow, without feeling.
Music is beside the point here. Vox Lux is concerned with the desensitizing powers of idol worship, with all its relevant connections. It understands the lure of escape and questions the effects of that desire, concluding on a chilling note: friends, family, and fans alike, bopping their heads in unison. The collective body is in thrall to the spectacle. They feel safe. Under the blinking lights, everything will be alright.
Vox Lux, directed by Brady Corbet, opens in theaters December 7, 2018.