As a movie lover, there’s nothing more thrilling than watching a young filmmaker step up and swing for the fences. In the wildly ambitious pop-idol cautionary tale, Vox Lux, director Brady Corbet tackles nothing less than the ruthless mechanics of stardom, the decline of American society, and domestic and global terrorism. But his reach exceeds his grasp.
The film opens — audaciously or exploitatively, depending on your point of view — with a 1999 school shooting in Staten Island. A 13-year-old student named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) suffers a serious spinal injury in the massacre. At a memorial service, she and her older sister (Stacy Martin) sing a song they’ve written. And it quickly snowballs into a chart-topping hit for a grieving nation. Overnight, Celeste becomes an unlikely celebrity — Britney Spears for the Columbine generation. Before the movie has a chance to catch its breath, she’s in the studio cutting an album and shooting a high-gloss video under the wing of her gruff New Yawk manager (Jude Law, with the no-nonsense personality of a pair of brass knuckles).
Propelled by periodic voiceovers delivered by an ironically deadpan Willem Dafoe, Vox Lux then jumps ahead 18 years to 2017, where Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman, also swinging for the fences unsuccessfully) has hardened into a self-immolating alcoholic trainwreck. She’s like an exposed nerve in leather and kabuki makeup. The tour she’s about to kick off is interrupted by a terrorist attack on a beach in Croatia perpetrated by gunmen wearing the same glittery masks Celeste wore in one of her iconic videos. Is she in some way responsible? Is American trash culture?
Corbet doesn’t seem as interested in the answers to the provocatively glib questions he raises as he is in creating a cynical riddle cloaked in style. No doubt some will find all of this to be a deep meditation on the pop-industrial complex, but from where I was sitting, it just felt like empty camp. C