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The joyous spectacle of Natalie Portman throwing weapons-grade bitch-queen tantrums is just one of the guilty pleasures in actor-turned-director Brady Corbet’s stylish, original and ambitious second feature. Spanning almost 20 years, Vox Lux makes an audacious attempt to understand post-Columbine, post-9/11 America through the life story of a superstar pop diva who is both a victim of random violence and unwitting catalyst for further tragedy. Its key theme seems to be lost innocence, on both a personal and national scale.
Corbet’s first feature, the arch historical fable The Childhood of a Leader, earned the best director and debut prizes in Venice in 2015. He returns to the Lido with Vox Lux, which premieres here ahead of its North American debut in Toronto next week. The 30-year-old writer-director describes the two works as companion pieces, using the same literary device of placing fictional characters on the fringe of world-shaking real events who then go on to shape history themselves. But Vox Lux is a far more substantial and satisfying film, rich in meaty performances, novelistic texture and stylistic verve. Besides great work from Portman, Jude Law and Raffey Cassidy (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), it features long passages of wry voiceover narration by Willem Dafoe.
The busy soundtrack throbs with EDM glitz-pop stompers by Sia, the Australian singer-songwriter who has penned hits for Beyonce and Rihanna, and more. In counterpoint to them is a stridently unsettling orchestral score by cult avant-garde composer Scott Walker, himself a former teen-pop idol, who previously worked on Childhood of a Leader. Even if Corbet’s grandiose ambitions sometimes get lost in tonal wobbles and pretentious flourishes, there is more than enough juicy material in this darkly glamorous postmodern fairy tale to score a left-field commercial hit. Ah, but if only he had gone with my preferred title, The Childhood of a Diva.
Divided into two main acts, framed by a prelude and coda, Vox Lux opens in 1999 with a jarring classroom massacre that leaves teenage high-schooler Celeste (Cassidy) with a life-threatening spinal injury. But Celeste recovers and, accompanied by her more musically gifted older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), performs a tender tribute ballad at a memorial to the victims. The song unexpectedly transforms her into America’s sweetheart, scoring her a lucrative record deal and the services of a sleazy, nameless manager (Law in unusually punchy, charismatic form).
As the Faustian temptations of fame loom closer, Celeste and Eleanor are plunged into a jet-setting whirl of activity, from Stockholm recording studios to L.A. video shoots. After losing her virginity to a theatrically angsty British goth rocker, Celeste has a glum but poignant epiphany. “You make the sort of music the boy who attacked me used to listen to,” she muses. Corbet invests these early scenes with great energy, visual poetry and sardonic humor. One of his witty historical asides explores Sweden’s current electro-pop supremacy and its roots in postwar anxiety over the allure of African-American jazz. Nothing is innocent, not even bubblegum pop.
Skipping forward 18 years, the second act of Vox Lux takes place in 2017. The adult Celeste (Portman) has been through a Britney Spears-style crash-and-burn career, and is now attempting to bounce back from scandal and addiction problems by launching her latest album with a hometown arena show. Success has driven a wedge between the once-close sisters, partly due to Celeste’s troubled bond with her teenage daughter Albertine (played by Cassidy again in a cheeky symmetrical touch), who is closer with her Aunt Eleanor.
On the morning of Celeste’s show, a terrorist mass shooting occurs in faraway Croatia. The gunmen’s motives are unclear, but they are wearing masks copied from one of the singer’s best-known music videos. As she struggles to process the cruel historical echoes, the singer struggles through a deliciously tense catch-up dinner with Albertine and a frosty encounter with reporters, then decompresses by getting wasted with her manager. Now middle-aged, but with traces of the old party animal, Law’s more tempered performance is nicely calibrated here.
Unfolding in leisurely real-time passages, this second chapter of Vox Lux feels like a self-contained one-act play. Mostly shot in long mobile takes, the freewheeling rhythm is a little baggy, but Portman gives magnificent ballsy diva, spitting badass lines that sound like Joan Jett channeling Dorothy Parker. “I don’t want people to think, I just want them to feel good,” Celeste shrugs at one point with barely a flicker of irony. Her overstyled hair and dissolute excesses veer perilously close to Absolutely Fabulous parody in places, but she is never one-dimensional. Behind her wounded, defensive barbs, Celeste also talks plenty of hard-won sense.
On a technical level, Vox Lux is full of sparkly, inventive craftsmanship. Shot on vintage 35mm, it looks handsome and lustrous, with playful shifts between zippy jump-cut montage and dreamy slo-mo. Climaxing with a superbly staged full-scale dance-pop show, featuring Portman encrusted in body glitter, Corbet’s high-caliber melodrama combines food for thought with sense-blitzing spectacle. Between screaming tantrums and booming anthems, it leaves us with a nagging sense that history never quite repeats itself, but sometimes rhymes. Usually to a thumping disco beat.
Production companies: Bold Films, Killer Films, Andrew Lauren Productions, Three Six Zero
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle
Director-writer: Brady Corbet
Producers: Gary Michael Walters, Michel Litvak, Svetlana Metkina, David Litvak, Christine Vachon, David Hiojosa, Andrew Lauren, DJ Gugenheim, Brian Young
Director of photography: Lol Crawley
Editor: Matthew Hannam
Production designer: Sam Lisenco
Costume designer: Keri Langerman
Music: Sia, Scott Walker
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Sierra Affinity
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