I’m not quite sure what to make of “Vox Lux,” a film that may be the only one I’ve ever seen that could be a good contender for both an Oscar as well as a Razzie. I loved it but also hated it, and this paradox is what makes the thing so damn fascinating. Think of it as a more interesting version of “A Star is Born,” but with more blood and shrieking.
The film opens in 1999 when teenage Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives a horrific, violent tragedy. Finding herself confined to a hospital bed for months, she beings writing songs with her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) and soon after, her tribute song to the other victims becomes a hit. With the help of a talent manager (Jude Law), Celeste rises to fame overnight. It’s the type of skyrocketing stardom that can cause a person’s insides to rot, a toxic celebrity that’s lauded by society as much as it is coveted.
The story is told in two major parts, the first half of the film focusing on Celeste’s teen years and then a shorter period of her as a mentally unbalanced adult pop star (Natalie Portman). The early story line is much better and far more compelling than the latter, which should be surprising because it’s not until the last half of the film that Portman finally shows up. But boy, does she make an entrance as a misbehaving, screeching diva.
Portman is over-the-top and lays on a thick New York accent that feels like a campy caricature. She’s good, but she’s also laughable. Law mostly fades into the background but his understated performance at least feels authentic, and Cassidy brings her now-signature creepy deadpan delivery that may make your skin crawl. Somehow, almost in spite of the myriad problems with the film, it’s almost impossible to pry your eyes away.
Writer / director Brady Corbet doesn’t shy away from sparking controversy, and the tragic incident is filmed in a way that nearly ripped my guts out. It’s unsettling and difficult to watch, and it’s meant to shock and disturb. His abstract direction fits the material like a glove, a crystal clear reflection of his ambitious, uncomfortable, balls-to-the-wall approach. The film is ironic and satirical, and at times just plain weird, but it’s never boring and kept me riveted until the end. It’s refreshing (and admirable) that Corbet, who has some big ideas and something specific to say, refuses to tone it down for mainstream audiences.
This isn’t a film for everyone, but it’s a compelling look at our obsession with pop culture and stardom, and an unblinking rebuke of society’s willingness to commercialize a traumatized girl and feed her yearning to be a household name. Many are chasing celebrity, but at what cost?