Vox Lux (Brady Corbet, 2018) 2 out of 4 stars.
A film that starts with a bang and ends in a fizzle, Vox Lux impresses before it disappoints. Featuring a brilliant set of twin performances from Raffey Cassidy (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), along with a collection of mannered tics masquerading as performances from the likes of Natalie Portman (Annihilation) and Jude Law (Black Sea), the movie offers cinematic highs and lows in an uneven, uneasy mix. Writer/director Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader) is sure of neither story nor theme, delivering occasionally powerful set pieces that fail to come together in a meaningful whole.
But what a beginning! The year is 1999, and 13-year-old Celeste (Cassidy) is in her Staten Island school just after the Christmas holidays when a horrific act of violence lands her in the hospital with physical and psychic trauma that will follow her through to the present. When she and sister Ellie (Stacy Martin, Rosy) perform a song about the experience, the subsequent national attention lands the two of them in a Manhattan recording studio with a shot at the big time. Though their manager (Law) is a bit of a vulgar sleaze, he appears to know what he’s doing, and after a trip to Sweden to work with the man who produced supergroup ABBA’s hits, the sisters’ success seems certain. Or rather, Celeste’s does, as she’s the singer, and Ellie the writer.
Flash forward to Act II (so labeled in an on-screen title card), about 18 years later, and Celeste (now played by Portman) is a megastar, about to release her 6thstudio album, “Vox Lux.” She’s also a neurotic mess, prone to alcohol and drug abuse, as well as periodic sex with her manager (still Law, looking not a day older). She and sis are no longer close (a fact foreshadowed at the end of Act I), though Ellie is the primary caretaker of Celeste’s daughter Albertine (Cassidy’s second role). It seems that the horror of the past is an inescapable albatross around Celeste’s neck, brought home when a terrorist attack in Croatia looks like an homage of sorts to her work. Fame and attention-seeking come in many forms.
Corbet juggles multiple narrative balls here, some with great skill, but cannot quite create a meaningful pattern in the trajectories of each, nor in their crossing. The expository voiceover by actor Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) doesn’t help, either, layering the plot with portent undone by the purple prose. The vapid sounds of Celeste’s music also ring false: for an artist ostensibly motivated by trauma, she traffics in surprisingly unmemorable bubblegum beats. Still, there are moments where Corbet and his actors – especially Cassidy – shine, sometimes making us forget the distressing pointlessness of the entire affair. But then we return to the music and our disappointment, and wonder, what was the point of the shocking opener, if it all just ends in stale pop tunes? I’ll wait for the greatest hits album, instead.