In 1999, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and Eleanor (Stacy Martin) survive a school shooting. The sisters compose and perform a song about their experience, making something lovely and cathartic out of catastrophe - which gives her a national platform and throws her into superstardom. By 2017, the now 31-year-old Celeste (Natalie Portman) is mother to a teenage daughter of her own and struggling to navigate a career fraught with scandals when another act of terrifying violence demands her attention.
'Vox Lux' opens with Willem Dafoe giving a short summary synopsis of a young woman named Celeste, describing her in equal terms as "a savvy businesswoman" and being born "on the losing side of Reaganomics", before launching into a prelude that sets up both a horrific event that's all too common in America - and the aftermath which births a superstar. That juxtaposition of horror and creativity is something that director Brady Corbet has touched on before, especially in 'Childhood Of A Leader', which examined how family disharmony births a tyrant.
It's not quite the same here, but in Natalie Portman, a wild-eyed popstar who frequently snaps off and out at people, you get the sense that Corbet's direction and script is noodling around the same themes and ideas. You also get the same level of almost clinical, eerie detachment that 'Childhood Of A Leader' had, but again, it's skewed ever so slightly to be something different.
What's frustrating about 'Vox Lux' is that it starts so incredibly strong, and the concept and ideas behind it are so fascinating, but it just doesn't stick the landing and deliver on the promise on the first act. That said, there is something truly original and daring about it that forces you to sit up and take notice. Portman gives a one-of-a-kind performance as Celeste, and the interplay between the sleazy-but-worldly manager played by Jude Law serves as the warring nature between pragmatism and creation.
The influences on both Portman's performance and the songs themselves are clear - it's Madonna, Katy Perry, Britney Spears and Sia (who wrote music for the movie) - but when she's off stage, the exaggeration and the violence of her very being makes it all the more jarring. 'Vox Lux' goes out of its way to disturb and upset, especially in the dichotomy between the power-pop anthems of Celeste and the anger burning out of her being in every scene.
The manner in which Corbet uses bold, abrasive music from the sadly-departed Scott Walker and smash cuts to evoke a feeling of dread and momentum is just as confident and assured as anything you'll see. But for all of this, and Portman's dazzling screen presence, it just never quite falls together and loses the run of itself by the third act.
Original and thought-provoking, 'Vox Lux' is an intriguing examination of fame, art, violence and pop music.