by Hope Madden and George Wolf
No doubt you’re hip to the talent of Natalie Portman.
But if you only know Brady Corbet as an actor (Funny Games, Melancholia, Simon Killer), or maybe don’t know him at all, get to know Corbet the visionary filmmaker.
Corbett writes and directs an astute and unusual pop ballad about celebrity—American celebrity, at that.
Vox Lux opens in 1999 as young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and her high school class are visited by a disgruntled young white male. Corbet’s camera plays with the horror of the scene as it dawns on those in the classroom as well as the audience what is about to happen.
As Celeste heals from a bullet to the spine, she and her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) work through their collective grief and trauma by writing a song, which Celeste later performs at a memorial vigil.
Thanks to the astute strategy of a no-nonsense manager (Jude Law) and straightforward publicist (Jennifer Ehle), the song becomes a healing anthem and Celeste—her protective sister at her side—is launched into pop stardom.
Corbet’s chaptered “21st Century Portrait” (the proper subtitle to his film) offers infrequent omniscient narration from Willem Dafoe, a glib narrative device that’s part “Behind the Music” and part sociological commentary. Tragedy is commodity in modern America, a fact that can only mean more tragedy.
When the timeline shifts forward and Portman takes over in the lead, we see a new character fully formed from years of living that are only hinted at. Celeste is now a veteran megastar with a daughter of her own (also played by Cassidy) and strained relationships with everyone around her.
Portman’s performance is such an all-in tour de force it effectively divides the film into parts: with and without her. She commands the screen with such totality you’re afraid of what Celeste might do if you dare to shift your focus somewhere else.
Corbet knows better than to do that. With Portman as a mesmerizing guide, he crafts a fascinating fable with two uniquely American pillars – gun violence and celebrity culture. Vox Lux is shocking, funny, sad, and haunting, with plenty of visual flourish and even some new songs by Sia.
It’s a statement, and coming from a relatively unknown writer/director, a pretty audacious one.
Keep ’em coming, Corbet.