Any film that adopts as its subtitle “A Twenty-First Century Portrait” better be profound enough to live up to such a grandiose decree. Writer-director Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux does indeed have millennial zeitgeist on its mind, from the new normal of mass shootings to post-9/11 malaise to the deification of celebrity.
But Corbet’s film is a purely academic exercise, written and directed without any real feeling, and leaving Natalie Portman, as a damaged pop singer, to do all the emotional lifting. His themes, many of them well-trod in better films — from Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret to Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon to this year’s A Star is Born — are treated like targets in some tacky water-pistol carnival game: shallow, easy to hit and unfulfilling when struck.
We first meet the protagonist, Celeste Montgomery, at 14, at the dawn of 2001, before she grows into a bedazzled, self-absorbed product. Played by Raffey Cassidy, she’s a Staten Island music student whose world is upturned when her classroom is invaded by a former student, a sunken-eyed skinhead with an assault rifle.
Celeste is shot in the neck but survives, funneling her grief into an original pop song that symbolizes hope and resilience for a community and a country in mourning. The song takes off, and almost overnight, Celeste and her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), who penned the tune, have become marketplace commodities, with an eager manager — played by a thick-accented and initially unrecognizable Jude Law — and a publicist (Jennifer Ehle) and a recording contract.
The fall of the World Trade Center, which occurs during the sisters’ first hedonistic trip to Stockholm to record an album, serves as a generational capstone for Corbet — the fin-de-siècle death knell of a simpler time. The next thing we know, it’s 2017, and Celeste (Portman) is now a 31-year-old, Gaga-esque pop star about to begin a tour for her sixth album, Vox Lux. On the day of her first gig, news breaks that a clutch of killers has shot up a beach in Croatia, and they did so wearing masks from Celeste’s breakthrough music video.
As Celeste is prompted to issue a statement to a ravenous throng of press, we glean, through narrative dribs and drabs, the trials and tribulations of her 17 years of lost time, a tabloid dumpster fire of teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, hospitalization and criminal behavior.
Corbet, taking full rein as writer-director for the first time, litters his film with enough pompous filigree to rival Lars Von Trier at his most self-important. The twin halves of Vox Lux are labeled “Genesis” and “Regenesis.” Voice-over narration is trotted out for storytelling expediency and for Corbet to unnecessarily underline his themes, as if embedding the Cliff’s Notes into his own text.
In the most unintentionally laughable example, we learn, in the wake of 9/11, that Celeste’s “loss of innocence curiously mirrored that of the nation.” The narration is provided by Willem Dafoe, his readings as bloodless as his recent Vincent Van Gogh embodiment was enraptured.
We’re left to ponder the ramifications of that loss of innocence, to appreciate the obvious irony of Celeste’s having (d)evolved from teenage victim/voice of a nation to unfeeling, ego-driven superstar for whom the mass-shooting du jour is a nuisance affecting her brand, not a rallying cry for change. Portman’s Celeste is jaded, manipulative and egotistical, and Corbet’s movie is much the same — a facile Death of the West screed that delights in its cynical appraisal of modern life.
Portman disappears into the troubled character the way Oscar voters adore, and you can visualize her chances for a nomination ascending with every greenroom breakdown, every drug-addled stumble, every mascara smear. She needs to be walked off the ledge by her character’s handlers, including her long-suffering but co-conspiratorial manager, and though we only see one day in her life, we understand that such interventions are commonplace, if not necessary to Celeste’s performances, providing the emotional fuel that her confected earworms (written by Sia) lack on their face.
As the movie prepares for its concert-performance climax, Corbet’s camera shifts from clinical, objective observance to wearisome faux-documentary immersion, mercilessly following his bedraggled subject through the winding contours of the arena, like she’s Dylan in Don’t Look Back or JFK in Primary. In the film’s turgid denouement, Celeste/Portman performs three or four numbers of synthetic pop, going through the garish, airbrushed, manufactured motions, appearing to lip-sync every note.
Whether this is a safeguard for the actor or a comment on the character’s lacquered artifice is a distinction without a difference: As Corbet’s film shows, the world is fake and plastic and crumbling anyway, so who cares? If this sense of resignation really defines the whole of Celeste’s generation, then God help us.
VOX LUX. Director: Brady Corbet; Cast: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Abbott; Distributor: Neon; Rating: R; Opens: Today at Lake Worth Playhouse, Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale and Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood