Just 22 minutes into “Vox Lux” (2018), Willem Dafoe’s buttery narration succinctly summarizes the genesis and damnation of its troubled star. Just days into the new millennium, the teenage Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy) stands at the candlelit pulpit of a close-knit Staten Island Catholic church to sing at a vigil for the victims a Columbine-like shooting, perpetrated by a guylinered, metalhead outcast. Accompanied by older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin), Celeste unsteadily takes her position and begins singing “Wrapped Up,” the first of the film’s 11 electrifying Sia-penned tracks. We zoom in on the opportunistic eye of a news camera as Dafoe’s voice explains, “The entire country fell in step with her sentiment. It was not her grief, it was theirs.”
And from this distinctly modern and American tragedy, pop’s next “It Girl” has emerged. Celeste’s music, plucked from her visions of an endless tunnel between life and death, becomes a filter for their collective trauma, dispersing it harmlessly into the air.
At this point, cinematographer Lol Crawley has already placed us behind a gun barrel as it fires multiple rounds into a seated music teacher, scaled back to the now-familiar image of children escaping out of second-story classroom windows, and stood unflinchingly before Celeste as her blood splatters onto the blackboard. The America of “Vox Lux” has only seen one of these images. Yet, this America will claim Celeste as their liberation from fear, rising to dance along with her from the splintered remnants of what was, in the year 2000, a burgeoning and terrifying phenomenon.
The subtitle of “Vox Lux” calls the film “A 21st Century Portrait,” and director Brady Corbet places Celeste’s career at the heart of our era’s maturation. The sense of center-cannot-hold paranoia that encroaches throughout mass media and culture during this time becomes her milestones. She ventures to Sweden with Ellie to record an album, sampling her first piece of the thumping euphoria of a pop star’s life. From there, they travel straight to Los Angeles with a smarmy manager (Jude Law), where Celeste becomes pregnant by an English musician. In the wake of 9/11, Celeste releases her most iconic video.
This idea that American culture has become increasingly commandeered by violence and its associated hysteria is certainly not a revolutionary one. Nor is “Vox Lux” alone in suggesting that cultural phenoms like Celeste become draftees in a type of mass cultural combat, having their lives, perspectives and struggles co-opted by the public to gain a sense of victory over, or perhaps more accurately a release from, the tumult of our time.
Perhaps the film’s position in today’s cinema landscape doomed it. In a year dominated by films like “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018), “A Star Is Born” (2018) and “Rocketman” (2019), perhaps the viewing public was unwilling to acquaint themselves with the new, fictional star of “Vox Lux” when they could see the lives of real-life icons on the next screen. Combined with a fairly tepid critical response, the writing seems to have been on the wall for “Vox Lux.” This does not make the critics and moviegoers ignorant rubes who wouldn’t know good cinema if it smacked them across the face; the film certainly has issues beyond Natalie Portman‘s halfhearted Staten Island accent.
“Vox Lux,” however, stands above its peers for its unrelenting focus on exactly who gains what from that all-important release and what its true ramifications are. Corbet devotes the film’s second act and finale to answering these questions in the space of a single day. Picking up in 2017, 31-year-old Celeste (Natalie Portman) is returning to Staten Island for the opening show of a sci-fi-influenced comeback tour. Beset by issues with arrests, alcohol and substance abuse, she struggles to maintain her relationships with her daughter, Albertine (Cassidy), and Ellie. Ahead of a press conference, her longtime publicist (Jennifer Ehle) brings disturbing news: A group of terrorists wearing the same masks from her video have just gunned down a dozen tourists on a Croatian beach.
With this terrorist incident halfway across the world, Celeste’s life cycle begins anew, having found, as Celeste’s bitter diner-table lecture to Albertine explains, “an angle.” Portman’s Celeste, propped up by drugs, drink and meds, may be semi-estranged from her daughter, spew bilious hatred at Ellie and crumple before the show into a blubbering, despondent mess. But these terrorists have now joined the litany of naysayers and hostile actors determined to Bring Celeste Down, and, as she defiantly declares onstage to her fans, they’ve been trying to take her down for years. But she won’t stay down.
This new bloodshed, at the hands of figures from Celeste’s artistic pantheon, is not visited upon her and later collectively transcended by legions of inspired fans. Celeste’s career, incubated by a shocking act of violence, has become a symptom of our era’s wider saturation of violence. Trauma has refracted off her since she stared into the eyes of the gunman, and it has finally moved beyond her reach.
But, like any good soldier, Celeste instinctually reworks the playing field to advance the saga of Celeste, whatever the personal cost. Exhorting these hostile actors to believe in Celeste rather than in their extremism, she steps onstage for the grand finale and unbinds the imaginary distinction between herself and the violence that made her.
Stardom and terror collide into the bass that shakes the arena. Portman’s Celeste squints and weaves this untameable energy through her vocal chords as she belts her lineup of Sia-written bangers. The blocky letters of a jumbotron flash between “PRAY” and “PREY.” Celeste dances the language of battle. We see her conquer the darkness beneath the surface; we know Celeste will always prevail. The beat drops. The lights explode. Her voice echoes. We close our eyes and are weightless.