phillip faraone/getty images
phillip faraone/getty images
Debuting in Venice and screening at TIFF, Vox Lux is writer-director’s Brady Corbet‘s musical tale of the rise of a pop Diva from accidental 90s child prodigy to bona fide superstar and fame addict. In Venice, the film was a symmetrical counterpoint of sorts to A Star Is Born which preceded it on the Lido by a few days. But where Star is a celebratory and romantic ballad of a film, Vox is a scathing portrayal of the perils of stardom as wells as a metaphor for our times, a public and private coming-of-age story in which the protagonist’s loss of innocence parallels that of the country buffeted by tragedies including the 9/11 attacks. “If the 20th century showed us the ‘banality of evil‘,” said director Brady Corbet, “The 21st century will be defined, I think, by what we could call the pageantry of evil.’” Natalie Portman added: “It's a film about the intersection of pop culture and violence and the spectacle we equate between the two and a reflection of the moment we live in (…) I hope it makes people realize some of the things we face in our society.”
When the story begins we are introduced to young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) as a mild, god- earing, middle school girl assembling in third-period music class (and are informed of her natural talent, Greek choir-style, by the off-screen voice of Willem Dafoe). The mundane 8th-grade proceedings are shockingly interrupted by a deranged school shooter in one of the most harrowing portrayals of mass violence committed to film (and we are including the horrific massacre of young people portrayed in Paul Greengrass’ 22 July). Celeste, a wounded survivor, becomes an instant sensation with an anthem in honor of the victims which she composes with her sister Ellie (Stacey Martin) and sings at a memorial.''
A crafty veteran promoter (Jude Law in fine form) steps in and within months the sisters are on tour promoting Celeste’s debut pop album – and soon after cavorting with less than godly grunge band-members on the Sunset Strip. At this point, right after the September 11 attacks of 2001, the film fast forwards and we find ourselves in 2017. Celeste is now a 31-year old road-worn veteran of many tours, scores of paparazzi scuffles and at least one potentially career-ending scandal with an out-of-court settlement. Played now by Natalie Portman, she has a 17-year old daughter (played by the same Raffey Cassidy) and a less than well-adjusted relationship to motherhood and substance-aided mood adjustment.
In a performance that had many in Venice recalling the intensity of the last character, she brought to the festival (in Black Swan) the adult Celeste has lost none of her Staten Island-inflected accent, especially when she delivers booze-fueled, expletive-laden backstage tirades or loses her cool in a press conference. Portman (who sings songs by Australian superstar SIA) delivers a memorable portrayal of a pop icon struggling to cling to cultural relevance and the unique cruelty of the waning limelight.
As she said in Venice: “There ‘s a big difference in the ecosystem that grows around a pop star. You have this world (…) that can really corrupt the relationship between love and commerce.”