With his writer/director debut, The Childhood of a Leader (2015), Brady Corbet anatomised a dictator’s upbringing in times of trouble. For his companion-piece follow-up, Corbet shifts the focus to a tyrant with a voice, a singer swept up in a cyclone of millennial fear and pop notoriety. If its predecessor’s slight problems linger – big themes semi-developed, brazen debts to Euro-arthouse hauteur – Vox Lux also upholds its resonant audacity and adds something new: a lead from Natalie Portman that hurtles off the show-stealing scale.
No potential for portent or provocation is left untapped by the opening, in which Willem Dafoe’s arch voiceover, avant-rock vet Scott Walker’s brooding score and the subtitle ‘A 21st Century Portrait’ trumpet Corbet’s ambitions. Raffey Cassidy plays 13-year-old Celeste, who survives a shattering, Columbine-echoing classroom tragedy in 1999 to gain viral renown singing a healing song written by her sister. Helped by a brusque manager (Jude Law), Celeste rockets to troubled stardom. Seventeen-ish years on, we find Celeste reimagined by Portman as a booze-sodden diva, scandal-marred tabloid magnet and toxic mum staging a comeback just as a terrorist atrocity echoes the shooting in her school.
Although Corbet smartly avoids overstating the implications behind these echoes, he perhaps over-simplifies the unholy contract between generational trauma and pop iconography. While A Star is Born exulted in music, Corbet rigs the vote against pop, especially when Vox Lux puts on a brash concert spectacle rendered glibly hollow by Celeste’s flatly efficient, Sia-written songs.
But there’s no doubting the sheer verve of Corbet’s exhaustive take on cultural PTSD. Unease is amplified through slo-mo breakdowns, pap-camera flashes, oppressive framings and breakneck montages. The backwards-running opening titles set the disorientating tone, though Corbet courts overstatement when he repeats the trick at the close.
Portman, meanwhile, positively revels in excess. Voice evoking Cyndi Lauper via Joan Jett, she issues acidic barbs at 140bpm, harangues daughter Albertine (played by Cassidy in a clever double-casting conceit) and slurps wine for dear life, all while rocking a look that screams ‘future dystopian despot’. If Celeste’s substance-fired implosion risks tilting Corbet’s agenda into cliché, it also risks stifling some side roles: Law’s pitch-perfect modulations hold firm, but Martin and Cassidy are over-shadowed. Taken as a study of how nuances can be eclipsed by stardom’s fireworks, Vox Lux rather proves its own point. But it takes its stage with gusto and guts, refusing to leave until it gets a reaction.
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- Release date: Out now (US)/May 3, 2019 (UK)
- Certificate: R (US)/15 (UK)
- Running time: 115 mins