Cinema right now is in a boom for films about pop music. With last year's Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born proving commercial and award-show hits, and the soon-to-be-released Rocketman promising another glossy biopic, Vox Lux arrives as the art-house option. But the film is quite unlike its peers, and in fact unlike any film in recent cinematic history; it begins with a school shooting and ends with a concert. In between these events, Vox Lux chronicles the rise of a pop star (Celeste), unfurled in a moment of grief-turned-hope. It is an ugly, haunting mirror of the world we exist in, and in particular an
Actor-turned-director Brady Corbet makes uncompromising films. His previous film, The Childhood of a Leader, explored the birth of a fascist movement through the eyes of a child, and now he turns his gaze to violence and popular culture. There is so much to appreciate in Corbet's film that it amazes that this is only his sophomore effort. Lol Crawley's cinematography is at times icily detached, at others warm and inviting. He morphs the look of the film in line with proceedings, often displaying his roots in music videos. For a film about music, Vox Lux has both a terrific, evocative score from Scott Walker as well as an album's worth of toe-tapping original songs from Sia. There is a conflict within the film, exemplified by the music chosen as
Much of the impression the film gives is due to its cast. Natalie Portman gives a fascinatingly broken performance, layering in the trauma we witness at the start of the film into a turn that morphs from ugly to sad to hopeful to funny, and back round. Although she isn't witnessed until the second half, she is the movie's star. The audience waits in anticipation as the narrative moves towards the point she is introduced with a time jump. It is a shame that so much of the film feels geared towards Portman's arrival, as it underplays an astonishingly good performance from Raffey Cassidy, who plays both the young Celeste and, some twenty years later, her daughter. Cassidy commands the screen and often feels unreadable. She is the beating heart at the centre of the film, which at times feels smothered by Portman's showier turn. Jude Law continues his triumphant later career with another compelling role as the pop star's manager. In fact the cast feels universally strong, even if the time jump means Stacy Martin (as Celeste's sister) straddles a part that is too old for her in the first half, and two young for her in the second. It is the most distracting element of this exemplary ensemble.
Vox Lux is an uncompromising watch, a film in conflict with itself. At times it feels cold and detached, viewing events from afar. At others it feels intimate and personable, burying underneath the skin of its protagonists. It is not a film that brings warmth in its viewing, but does have a depth that makes it a compelling watch. The film almost wants to say too much in its time on screen, with some of its ideas only half-formed, but for all of its flaws, there's nothing in cinema right now quite like Vox Lux.