That treacherous slogan “When they go low, we go high” epitomizes the deliberately cynical dishonesty of our era, but filmmaker Brady Corbet is ambitious in a forthright way — unmatched by any other American moviemaker. His new movie, Vox Lux: A Twenty-First Century Portrait, resists cynicism with grand artistic and philosophical conceits.
Vox Lux is divided into separate acts — “Act I: Genesis: 2000–2001” and “Act II: Regenesis: 2017.” It almost seems like two different movies. The first half chronicles a high-school shooting incident and follows one of the victims, Celeste (first played by Raffey Cassidy), who recovers in the second half and becomes a pop-music superstar (played by Natalie Portman). Narrator Willem Dafoe recounts how she switched the pronoun “I” to “we” in her childlike confessional song. “Simply put, it became a hit.”
The events of 9/11 happen between the shooting and Celeste’s transformation, but they are matter-of-fact. Corbet goes deeper into the spiritual crises of lost faith, corrupted innocence, and the hope that is held onto in desperation — as a way of speaking and acting out loud in worldly, saint-like suffering and trial. Keep in mind that director Brady Corbet, a former child actor, is a student of Lars von Trier’s, and he imitates the Danish prankster’s genre-interrogating methods.
Corbet observes the zeitgeist’s cynicism as if embracing it through agnostic techniques (Celeste’s debut performance in church features a haunting, strobe-like afterimage of a crucifix). Sometimes his inventiveness is just captious (her freak-out in a diner is like a scene from Aronofsky’s masochistic The Wrestler done right). But Vox Lux is also dedicated to the memory of Jonathan Demme, the late humane positivist whose epic Beloved also demonstrated surprisingly radical formalism, and so Vox Lux has moments of startling and expressive individual yearning within the millennium’s darkness. Cassidy’s reappearance as Celeste’s daughter prompts a viewer’s psychic double-take.
Portman’s Celeste is a remarkably precise, dead-on interpretation of a Millennial monster that avoids the knife edge of campy cultural satire usually seen in backstage wallow. (Jude Law etches in her manager like her conscience; she reminds him, “All the people we answered to, work for us now.”) She’s both Gypsy and Rose, to apply a classic Broadway analogy. Her devastatingly coarse New York working-class accent echoes legendary showbiz vulgarians and modern-day, transgressive profanity. (Streisand can now let go of her self-aggrandizing fantasy to apotheosize the show Gypsy.) Celeste’s decadent stare, with a silver metallic-glam streak at her temples, looks like unrepentant star power, yet all enmity is aimed inward; she’s a self-immolating moth to the flame of celebrity.
Madonna has never received a more appropriate critique, and yet it’s doubtful whether Portman, or even gentlemanly Demme admirer Corbet (he substitutes Von Trier’s ruthlessness with American generosity), would dare admit it. The Vox Lux timeline doesn’t fit Madonna. (In 1986, I sat behind Madonna at a preview of Demme’s Something Wild. As it screened, she repeatedly turned to her companion, screeching “What?!” Then she walked out in a huff. I guess the similarities to her Who’s That Girl, which was in production at the time, were too close to abide.) Vox Lux is also a response to the still unfathomable Lady Gaga phenomenon (although the melodic songs here are by the enigmatic Sia). And when Celeste’s stage workout incorporates Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” booty-bend, the resonance includes all the post-Madonna degradation — even Michelle Obama’s “classy” act — that we suffered step by step and that remains unprocessed. (Celeste’s flashing “Pray/Prey” stage backdrop whirls the contravention in our face.)
In Corbet’s vision of the zeitgeist, Celeste hasn’t yet stopped to assess the psychic damage of her personal trauma and 9/11. Instead, her show goes on, rushing headlong into self-destructive defensiveness. (“I’m a private girl in a public world,” she sings in one of her “sci-fi anthems.”) We may have been headed toward a breakdown all along, but Corbet’s moviemaking is inspired by those symptoms, which means he is alert to modern crisis and has the ambition to make it vivid. Von Trier says that his own new movie, The House That Jack Built (a deliberate perversion of the nursery rhyme), requires a few days to digest; this could also be true of Vox Lux.
Portman makes Corbet’s provocation undeniable (especially the new-religion summation that Celeste gives to the media). Their artistic feat goes against the fake pathos of Roma and the shallow religiosity of First Reformed. It’s a rare filmmaker bold enough to think through this century’s spiritually bereft, misunderstood spectacles.