Actor-turned-director Brady Corbet returns with his second feature-length movie, Vox Lux. Like his debut, 2015’s The Childhood of a Leader, he’s crafted a story with fictional characters plunged into recognisable real-world events. The film begins with a prologue in 1999, with a brutal high-school shooting (reminiscent of the notorious massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado). Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is badly injured but survives. Then, with the help of her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), she records a tribute song to the victims.
When the track goes viral, Celeste unwittingly becomes America’s latest sweetheart and a pop career beckons, thanks to Jude Law’s sleazy manager. After a whirlwind trip to Stockholm (and an amusing crawl through Swedish cultural history), Celeste returns to Los Angeles, all set for world domination. Corbet, who wrote the script, then moves us on eighteen years, in a surprise shift that reunites us with Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) as a tantrum-throwing diva.
With a history of rehab-addiction behind her, and a deteriorating relationship with Eleanor, Celeste is on the comeback trail with the launch of a new album, Vox Lux. She’s also got her teenage daughter Albertine (Cassidy, again, in a neat casting twist) to contend with. But events take a tragic turn when news arrives that in Croatia there’s been another mass shooting, with the killers wearing masks copied from one of Celeste’s earlier music videos.
Exploring a contemporary post-Columbine America, Corbet’s interest in the crossroads between fame and tragedy is intriguing (it’s hard to divorce yourself from memories of the attacks at the Ariane Grande concert in 2017 in Manchester). No question, Corbet’s interest lies in our celebrity-drenched culture and the way the media infuses/instructs/infects all of our lives. It’s a brave filmmaker that constructs a narrative arc that spans from a mass shooting to a glittery pop concert finale (with Portman singing tunes written by Australian-born Sia).
Portman is as fully committed here as she was as the ballerina heading for a breakdown in Black Swan, but credit is also due to Raffey Cassidy, playing dual roles with distinction. Featuring voiceover narration from Willem Dafoe, and Law cranking things up, it’s a grab-bag of good performances. With Corbet also reuniting with the late Scott Walker, who provided the soundtrack as he did for The Childhood of a Leader, there’s a lot of talent on show, even if the end result isn’t always as satisfying as you’d like.
1. Stills from Vox Lux.