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Now On Netflix - VOX LUX

vox lux review
A school shooting survivor becomes a hugely successful pop star.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Brady Corbet

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Raffey Cassidy, Christopher Abbott, Maria Dizzia

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What could be behind the sudden spate of musical biopics of fictional pop and rock stars? Last year we saw Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga crooning their way through a toxic relationship in A Star is Born, while Ethan Hawke's washed up alt-rocker was given a new lease of life in Nick Hornby adaptation Juliet, Naked. This year we'll see Elizabeth Moss as a manic mix of Courtney Love and Bette Davis in Her Smell, Jessie Buckley as a working class Glaswegian with dreams of Nashville in Wild Rose, and Elle Fanning as a young wannabe star battling her way through a cutthroat X-Factor style contest in Teen Spirit. But for now we're looking at Brady Corbet's Vox Lux, in which child actress extraordinaire Raffey Cassidy and former child actress extraordinaire Natalie Portman essay the teen and thirtysomething versions of a hugely successful but troubled pop star.

Much like the recent films of Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke (Mountains May Depart; Ash is Purest White), Corbet's film spans a period from the turn of the millennia to the present. We meet Vox Lux's heroine, Celeste Montgomery (Cassidy) as a 14-year-old aspiring musician in the year 2000. One day at school, her band practice is interrupted when a fellow pupil guns down her teacher and classmates. Celeste survives but is forced to wear a neck brace for the remainder of her life. With the aid of her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin), Celeste composes a song, 'Wrapped Up', in tribute to her fallen friends and teachers. When the sisters perform the song at a church vigil, it is recorded by the attending news cameras, and 'Wrapped Up' hits the charts, becoming an anthem for post-Columbine America.


vox lux review

The first half of Vox Lux follows the rise of the precocious Celeste in the music industry, guided by her coke-snorting but nonetheless protective and parental manager (Jude Law). Taken as a film in its own right, this portion of Corbet's film is as gripping a piece of cinema as you'll see in 2019. Prior to his 2015 directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader, Corbet, a former child star himself, had spent the prior decade shunning Hollywood to work with some of the most notable auteurs of our era - Michael Haneke (Funny Games), Lars Von Trier (Melancholia), Antonio Campos (Simon Killer), Bertrand Bonello (Saint Laurent), Ruben Γ–stlund (Force Majeure), Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria), Mia Hansen-LΓΈve (Eden), Noah Baumbach (While We're Young) - and if you see a young American male in a European film, chances are he's played by Corbet.

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On the evidence of the staggeringly impressive Childhood, Corbet had been taking notes. Both his films have a distinctly European flavour, and Vox Lux resembles not the work of an American critiquing his own society so much as that of an outsider looking in. Corbet finds a tragic glamour in the mundane corners of the American NorthEast, cinematographer Lol Crawley draining the colour out of New York while accentuating its urban allure. When we first transition from Celeste's sleepy Long Island suburb to the noisy Manhattan, the smash cut and Scott Walker's booming string score recall that jolting moment when Vincente Minnelli takes us from a mythical Scottish hamlet to the Big Apple in Brigadoon.


vox lux review

There's a fairytale element to the journey of young Celeste. Not the colourful fairytales of Disney, but those dark fables of medieval Europe, where young women are lured through forests with twisted trees (the skyscrapers of Manhattan) and tempted by wolves in sheep's clothing (or leather jackets in the case of the predatory British rocker who seduces Celeste). But we're never quite sure if Celeste is Little Red Riding Hood or the Big Bad Wolf. At times she appears wide-eyed and innocent, easily seduced by the trappings of fame, while at others she's commanding, bossing around her manager and collaborators like an experienced ringmaster. Could Michael Jackson have been the template for Celeste?

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Cassidy, who was the only good thing about the big budget flop Tomorrowland, appears to be on a similar career trajectory as Corbet, having already worked with Yorgos Lanthimos on The Killing of a Scared Deer. Her roles in Lanthimos and Corbet's films suggest that despite her young age she's well versed in the idiosyncrasies of European cinema, and she nails the unique tone Corbet is looking for here. Sadly, the same can't be said for Portman, who takes over the role of Celeste in the movie's second half, which finds her a 31-year-old alcoholic and drug addict struggling to hold her career together. If you can accept Corbet's nod to Bunuel, the problem isn't that Cassidy and Portman don't remotely resemble one another; it's that Portman is so over the top and out of sync with the studied filmmaking around her that her performance derails the film from the point she saunters on screen. I simply couldn't believe that she was playing the same character that Cassidy had worked so hard to embody. That said, Portman is certainly entertaining in an early Eric Roberts kind of way. Her Noo Yawk accent takes a trip across all five boroughs, and her exaggerated gestures are unintentionally amusing.


vox lux review

The blame can't all be placed at Portman's feet, as Corbet's script fails to satisfyingly bridge the period from the cool and composed teenage Celeste to the sociopathic monster she's ambiguously grown into. Could Cassidy have pulled off the role with the aid of makeup? It's a big ask of a young actress but I suspect she would have been up to the task.

Corbet's final misstep is to linger on Celeste's concert for what feels like the final 15 minutes of his film. Portman does a terrible job of lip-syncing to the vocals provided by real-life pop star Sia, and the choreography of herself and her dancers is embarrassingly awful. Where Alex Ross Perry's Her Smell, which similarly charts the career of a troubled female singer, sends you out on a high with its climactic stage show, Vox Lux leaves you contemplating the movie that might have been.

Vox Lux is on Netflix UK now.




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