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About halfway through writer-director Brady Corbet’s electrifyingly obnoxious “Vox Lux,” the sardonic, unseen narrator voiced by a wry Willem Dafoe describes our pop superstar protagonist as "prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present that had reached an extreme of its cycle."
How you feel about such a line will probably determine what you make of the movie, succinctly summing up as it does this picture’s bracingly ostentatious style and dyspeptic diagnosis of contemporary American malaise. Or, as I texted a friend shortly after the screening, “This movie is kind of an a--hole and I think I love it.”
Unsubtly subtitled "A Twenty-First Century Portrait," Corbet’s film is very much concerned with historical and cultural signifiers, beginning on “the eve of the new millennium” in 1999 with a harrowing school shooting on Staten Island. Fourteen-year-old Celeste Montgomery (played as a kid by the quietly coltish Raffey Cassidy) survives, albeit with a bullet permanently lodged in the back of her neck.
Celeste and her churchy older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) pen an uplifting ballad of perseverance to sing at the candlelight vigil — a song that with a few tweaks from a savvy producer soon becomes a smash hit single, cannily cashing in on our national tendency to turn individual grief into collective kitsch. A star is born.
The 30-year-old Corbet came up as an actor working for international arthouse terrors like Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, whose influences are all over both “Vox Lux” and his thrillingly nasty 2016 directorial debut, “The Childhood of a Leader.” He’s got a cutting, curdled sensibility you seldom see from actors behind the camera, who often exhibit a performer’s natural desire to please the audience. Corbet is the opposite of ingratiating, coming on strong again here with stark montages of brutalist architecture and a pummeling, discordant score by avant-garde musician Scott Walker.
“Vox Lux” is a burly, overbearing piece of filmmaking, often horrifically funny and excitingly unencumbered by questions of good taste or worries about when to say when. Of course Celeste’s deflowering via a heavy metal guitarist would just so happen to coincide with not merely a heartbreaking betrayal by Eleanor and their scuzzy, dirtbag manager (Jude Law), but also news that a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center. (Only Dafoe could put such a bone-dry spin on the line, “Celeste’s loss of innocence curiously mirrored that of a nation.”)
But it is in the “gaudy and unlivable present” that the film truly roars, leaping ahead to 2017 with Natalie Portman taking over as the now 31-year-old Celeste. (Cassidy sticks around to play the star’s teenage daughter in a bit of stunt casting that turns unexpectedly haunting.) A floundering basket case with a mile-high pompadour, talons for nails and eyeliner to match her school shooter’s, Portman fusses and fidgets while shrieking her lines in a deafening Noo Yawk honk. It’s a ferociously oversized, boldly theatrical turn that some critics have claimed capsizes the movie. I couldn’t get enough of her.
(Speaking as someone often irked by Portman’s wan, affectless line readings, it took her baroquely stylized performance as the former First Lady in 2016’s “Jackie” to really turn me around on the actress. Nowadays I’m all-in for this insane accent phase of her career. Go big or go home, Nat.)
The second hour of “Vox Lux” chronicles a chaotic press day intended to promote Celeste’s comeback concert that evening, her first after a troubled two years of substance abuse episodes and related legal woes. But the superstar’s well-oiled publicity machine is knocked off axis by news of yet another mass shooting, this one on a beach in Croatia where gunmen were wearing the disco mirrorball masks made famous in Celeste’s most popular music video.
Inspired in no small fashion by the antics of Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ 1977 classic “Opening Night,” Portman’s ensuing mega-meltdown is enough to make the paint peel off most movie theater walls. But it’s also elegantly augmented here by Corbet’s cool visual control. He and cinematographer Lol Crawley are constantly boxing the caterwauling chanteuse into concrete backstage corridors or eerily empty hotel hallways. The entire aesthetic is designed to resemble the tunnel that once haunted a young Celeste’s nightmares. Even when she and her daughter walk down a New York City street they’re stuck under scaffolding.
“I don’t want people to think too much. i just want them to feel good,” says Celeste, who eventually takes the stage for an elaborately costumed, neon phantasmagoria of toe-tapping tunes by executive producer Sia, and that’s Portman herself singing the studiously banal lyrics, most of them empty self-affirmations shouted simultaneously from an adoring crowd. With choreography by the actress’ husband Benjamin Millepied, Celeste’s stage show is a hollowed-out marvel of flickering lasers and mechanical motions, while meaningless phrases like “BABY AVEC MONEY” blare across giant LED screens.
It’s impossible not to think of Ariana Grande’s Manchester concert during this sequence, the artist such an obvious inspiration for Celeste’s style that with a sinking pit in your stomach you’ll find yourself wondering just how far Corbet is going to take things here. It was then with a shudder I realized that, for all its amusingly pretentious wankery, “Vox Lux” had nonetheless captured something elusive about modern American life that other movies won’t dare touch — the normalization of mass murder as everyday event, and the understanding that we’re all just bopping our heads to catchy beats in between when the shots ring out.
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