Vox Lux is a wild, brash examination of fame and infamy, celebrity and notorioty, and while the film struggles to maintain the high quality it establishes during the first 30 minutes, it does succeed in creating a bold, compelling narrative somehow manages to feel both raw and highly stylized.
Celeste is a regular 13-year-old girl whose life is thrown into chaos after a school shooting sees her emerge not just as a survivor, but the voice of a nation once the song she performs with her sister at the memorial service goes viral. More quickly than is probably healthy, she is whisked off to New York City so that she can get to work on creating an album while she still has everyone’s attention.
Forget about properly healing from her injuries (she has bullet fragments lodged in her spine that cause more or less constant pain) or taking a minute to process the emotional trauma she has just undergone — embarking on a career in the entertainment industry as an impressionable teenager with little adult supervision is exactly what she needs.
She and her older sister (who is quietly established as the more artistic and arguably talented of the two) are swept off to Scandanavia to record a hit record, where the heady combination of too much freedom too fast and the never quite dealt with personal trauma lead Celeste down a path of sex, drugs, and rock and roll that should seem fairly familiar to anyone whose ever watched even a preview of a VH1 Behind the Music special.
When we next see Celeste, she is a world-weary and deeply unstable global superstar with a history of erratic behavior and a teenage daughter she barely knows. The iconic image of her debut music video has been used in connection with a terrorist attack in Eastern Europe, which brings unwelcome attention from the press as well as painful memories from her own childhood. This is only exacerbated by her crippling addiction to painkillers from the injury she received in her own encounter with mass violence.
The link between celebrity and infamy is made perfectly clear. Neither the pop star or the international terrorist can exist in a vacuum: Celeste herself draws the parallel when she suggests in a press conference that we didn’t pay attention to them, they would go away.
Natalie Portman puts in a delightfully off-kilter performance in the lead role of adult Celeste. It’s clear that she has a unique understanding of Celeste, having been exposed to a similarly adult world as a child actor herself, but seems eager to fully embody a character who is equally capable of being the victim and the villain of her own life. This is Natalie gone dark.
Another clear standout in the film is Raffey Cassidy, the young actress who plays both the young version of Celeste as while as Celeste’s daughter, Albertine. Her vulnerability and strength are remarkable, and it’s only through her nuanced work that we see the stubborn work ethic tempered by a deep trauma that will get her into trouble as she tries to navigate her way through the music industry, eventually morphing into the unpredictable, unstable music icon that is adult Celeste.
Vox Lux is an ambitious film that features an opening act that is as close to perfect as a movie can get. It fails to keep pace throughout the rest of the film, but deserves credit for taking the well-worn cliche of an unstable, misunderstood pop star and creating something that feels fresh and unlike quite anything we’ve seen before.