Vox Lux begins with a school shooting. The horrors of this opening sit in stark contrast to how the film might be perceived from its promotional image: a glamorous rise of a pop star dressed in a tight purple leotard, dominating the stage at the peak of her career. Yet this film is anything but its surface-level appearance, and director Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader ) takes acute angles to steer this personal character study sharply into the terrors of the twisted, damaging implications of modern celebrity culture.
A 4:3 grainy home video style film introduces a young Celeste (Raffrey Cassidy), strumming the guitar, as “not all that special” — and she seems worlds apart from her adult self; the stylish, heavily eye-shadowed character of her future star identity (Natalie Portman). As a 13-year old, Celeste is plain-faced, soft-spoken, even compassionate in the midst of the shockingly violent shooting (she tries to coax the shooter to pray with her before he discharges gunfire on her peers). The effects of trauma from this event don’t get a chance to settle into her head before she’s crowned the nation’s next music prodigy. After fumbling with notes on a keyboard in the hospital bed, Celeste performs an original song at an all-too-familiar candlelight memorial that captures the heart of the nation — a temporary band-aid of hope on yet another dark tragedy at the hands of America’s gun laws.
From then on, it’s frightening how quickly Celeste is thrust into the music industry and her image commercialised, despite still being a teenager. There’s a nagging feeling that her life is about to take a left turn as she disperses the sounds of gunshots and screaming voices from her head, and enters the mindset of a mega pop idol. But the person behind that shimmering persona is preserved in this sophisticated picture, and Corbet’s slick direction and writing cements Celeste’s fresh-faced youth as she records her first demo, makes her first record deal, takes her first overseas trip without parents. Flanked by squalid manager (Jude Law) and her supportive sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), it’s mostly a positive whirlwind of nostalgic memory, of autonomous adolescence and of inseparable sisterhood — but it’s also peppered with an inevitability that this version of Celeste will cease to exist.
Celeste’s rise-to-fame transformation is as much a physical hurdle as it is a mental one: a dance rehearsal where Celeste buckles and struggles to move her body through her spinal injury — a bullet permanently lodged in her spine — is nerve-racking. You wonder how broken she really is inside, how much pain she’s pushing through to replicate the choreography — and whether she can even finish the number, let alone reshape herself under the guise of a self-possessed celebrity.
Narrated by an outer-world, all-knowing force (voiced by Willem Dafoe), the film’s structure flows eerily like a grandiose opera, stitched together with preludes and acts. The third-person presence adds a haunting undercurrent to what is already a chilling, personal depiction of fame, both entering Celeste’s nightmares and estranging itself with a conscious distance from its protagonist. Certain shots repeat themselves over; one of an empty tunnel materialises between scenes with no explanation. Celeste later refers to this single image as one that plagues her dreams — and perhaps in some subliminal fashion, it also appears in one of her music videos where she speak-sings on the back of a motorcycle to pop beats, her face covered by a glitter silver face-mask. It’s also unclear who is behind the camera or watching over the scene, which contributes to an uneasy tone that Corbet sustains through Celeste’s “genesis”, as if there’s something emptier and colder that’s starting to infect the girl who once so gently, innocently sung a lullaby at the church vigil.
A bold time jump 15 years into the future reveals that the effects of this pop star façade go beyond mere costuming, and Corbet makes both Celeste’s teenage and adult incarnations wholly disparate and unidentifiable from one another. In an interview with SBS Australia, Corbet said he didn’t want Portman and Raffrey behaving with the same mannerisms, evolving Celeste into a “totally different character”. Both actresses’ performances reflect this; where Cassidy’s younger interpretation said more with her eyes, betraying slight dysfunction and a fractured being still trying to piece herself back together, the “regenesis” of the 31-year old at the height of her comeback career hands Portman an unapologetically rambling character who uses words as both her weapon and defensive mechanism. “Mum, what are you talking about?” her daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffrey Cassidy) asks an older Celeste as she lashes out in philosophical tangents that stray from normal human conversation. Celeste is quick-witted and much more captivating than her younger self, but her loose proclamations are part of a show too — of a shameless, outspoken personality that skirts dangerously close to narcissism and cruelty.
This time jump places the film in 2017: a post 9-11 world where paparazzi swarm the entrances to hotels, journalists probe questions into personal, ethical controversies, and fans feel entitled to demand a selfie. Celeste’s brand has reached new heights in the social media age, but the performance isn’t left on the stage — it, in turn, blurs her private and public self — and it’s not without its shaky repercussions. Her pop icon status hides a high-strung vulnerability that slips out in backstage anxiety attacks and frequent breakdowns. “I’m scared,” she whispers, and it finally feels like a return of authenticity amongst the distraction of off-hand quips and self-absorbed press conferences.
And there’s much to be terrified about: Celeste’s cultural influence is another beast in itself, and it’s out of her hands now. It has its ramifications across national borders and into international news: her persona becomes implicated as the terrorists in a gun attack disguise themselves in her image. Celebrity culture in the 21st century manifests in more intense and exacerbated ways, with mass media blowing up pathological ideas of celebrity approval and worshipping. More dangerously, it bears the questions: How much are celebrities responsible for modern violence? Why did these terrorists choose to wear Celeste’s signature face masks? The answers are sticky in the perverted materialisation of Celeste’s profile, though a violent connection between her survival in the school massacre and this present event become evidently clearer. Her celebrity construct has surpassed beyond her control, and its meaning warped — in the same way her trauma was previously propelled as a force for a nation’s healing. She’s become the perpetrator of her own victimhood.
When Corbet grants us a look into Celeste’s indulgent final performance, the narrator speaks once again. This time, he leaves us with a hanging revelation that throws into question the state of Celeste’s soul, now that she has completely morphed into an untouchable deity. The sequence is spectacular and heightened in its nightmarish, suffocating, and intoxicating way; her fans, nicknamed “Little Angels”, bop in unison, mouthing her words, reacting to her every movement. We — the audience — have been there; we’ve been part of that same arena crowd, watched flashy music videos, and obsessed over the gossip columns that keep the celebrity machine churning. So when the blinding arena lights come on and pop beats blasts through the speakers, we are unable to pry our eyes off her, and we soak up the theatrics of Celeste’s rebirth.
Vox Lux is now showing in Australian cinemas.
Debbie Zhou is an arts writer/critic and managing editor of Rough Cut. She’s just a bit obsessed with movies and the theatre, and she will always get behind a good film score. Her words also appear in Time Out Sydney, The Guardian, The Big Issue, Audrey Journal and more. Tweet her at @debbie_zhou