Without a doubt Vox Lux is a strange film that has a lot going for it. Seeming like A Star is Born given the Network treatment, this oddly satirical piece often cuts against itself as it charts the raise of pop diva Celeste. There is a nebulous darkness underpinning this piece, a damning commentary (perhaps literally as there is an oddly satanic undertone here) that never quiet solidifies into the scathing denunciation it should be. In part, this does work to the themes of the film itself, as it derides that veneer of caring and depth propagated by the industry, but it is also annoyingly frustrating as a viewer.
Broken into two sections, cleft straight down the middle as if by the judgement of Solomon, Vox Lux shows us the Celeste’s ascent to stardom. Firstly as the survivor (Raffey Cassidy) of a mass school shooting, whose heartfelt tribute song captures the sorrowful sentiment of a nation, and propels her to stardom. Then as an embittered diva (Natalie Portman) struggling to return after a tumultuous series of scandals, and whose early iconography has recently been used in a terrorist attack.
There’s certainly a sharp tongue and a beautiful directorial eye at play here, as writer/ director Brady Corbet dismantles the world of a pop star. From those first tentative steps, to that of manufactured superstar constantly attempting to seek greater and greater fame in a step to achieve equilibrium, Vox Lux is rather withering in its commentary. Portman’s wondrously self possessed, self important, and terribly accented performance is paramount, but it goes beyond that. At times verging on parody Portman just manages to reign it in from the edge. Jude Law’s dry cynic adds contrast, giving a soulless insider’s view of the dream industry. All of which is guided by the ominous heavy handed narration of William Defoe, adding another layer of threat and meaning to the work. It’s fascinating stuff, just seemingly untethered from any crystallised insight into either the industry, or the mythology it is pedaling.
Which is where Vox Lux flounders. Despite its beautiful cinematography, and intriguing style, it never delivers the deep dive into culture that it consistently teases. As an audience we are left with no doubt that the film has something fascinating it wishes to tell us, but by the final credits we’re uncertain that it actually has. Corbet has created a beguiling work, and one that may grow with multiple viewings revealing hidden depth, or perhaps that might just be apophenia and wishful thinking. Honestly, at a first pass it’s hard to ascertain, but I’m leaning towards it being as significant as Celeste’s latest album of pop science fiction anthems. Slick, engaging, but maybe not as profound as it thinks.