I was left with rather hollow impression after watching “Vox Lux”, whose title means “voice of light” in Latin. While it has a number of good moments to remember, the movie is not entirely successful in terms of story and characters, and we can only admire its bold attempt to be something more than your average flashy music drama about fame and its price.
The first half of the movie mainly revolves around how a plain adolescent girl named Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy) becomes a national sensation in 1999. When she and her classmates are about to begin their usual school day in their classroom after the winter holiday season, a terrible shooting incident suddenly happens in the school, and there eventually comes a very tense moment when Celeste finds herself between her terrified classmates and a boy responsible for the shooting incident.
While Celeste luckily survives, many of her classmates die in the end, and she is quite devastated because of that. As going through the recovery process at a local hospital, she composes a song along with her sister to express her feeling of loss and grief, and she subsequently performs that song at a memorial ceremony for the victims of the shooting incident. Everyone at the ceremony including TV and newspaper reporters is quite impressed by the unadorned poignancy of the song, and, not so surprisingly, it becomes quite popular around the country.
And it does not take much time for Celeste to rise to fame and success she has never imagined before. With the guidance of her manager played by Jude Law, she takes necessary steps for her stardom. We observe them going through their recording session, we see them having a meeting with the publicist played Jennifer Ehle, we also get a dizzy montage scene showing how she and her sister have some fun after they come to Stockholm. Like many young pop music stars, Celeste comes to dabble in alcohol and drug in the meantime, and her manager is surely not so pleased about that.
Anyway, she eventually gets a lot more fame and success than expected after shooting her music video in LA around the time when that horrible historical tragedy happens in New York City, and the second half of the movie focuses on her subsequent status in 2017. Due to a recent shooting incident associated with that famous music video of hers, Celeste, played by Natalie Portman from this point, draws lots of unwanted attention from media and public, but she is determined to do the upcoming concert as scheduled, and her manager and publicist have no problem with that.
Meanwhile, we observe how messy her personal life has become. Due to a little personal conflict in their past, Celeste and her sister have been very distant to each other, and there is a painful moment when Celeste cruelly lashes out at her sister, who remains around Celeste as before despite that. In case of Celeste’s adolescent daughter Albertine (Raffey Cassidy), Celeste tries to be a little nice to her, but she cannot help but become neurotic and self-absorbed as shown from the long conversation scene between her and Albertine, who clearly worries about her mother while understanding well what a mess her mother has been during recent years.
Around the narrative point where her showtime finally comes, Celeste is quite more nervous and agitated than before, but, of course, she manages to find her spirit and strength because, well, she still lives for music and performance. During the expected climactic sequence, the movie provides some visually dazzling moments as required, and the original songs by Sia are utilized well during these moments while sounding as catchy as your typical popular pop songs.
However, the screenplay by director Brady Corbet and his co-writer Mona Fastvold does not provide much substance to support many stylish moments in the film. Besides its thin characterization and uneven storytelling, the movie has several distracting flaws including the redundant narration by Willem Dafoe, and we accordingly become more distant to its story and characters without much care and attention.
Nevertheless, the movie is not entirely without interesting elements to observe, which mainly come from the two main performers at the center of the movie. Looking as committed as she was in “Black Swan” (2010) and “Jackie” (2016), Portman did a good job of conveying to us her character’s bitter superficiality, and she is complemented well by Raffey Cassidy, who drew our attention for the first time via her plucky supporting turn in “Tomorrowland” (2015) and then showed more of her talent in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017). While ably carrying the first half of the film, Cassidy also holds her own place well opposite Portman during the second half, and that is certainly more than enough for me to discern that she is indeed a new talented actress to watch.
“Vox Lux” is the second feature film directed by Corbet, who previously debuted with “The Childhood of a Leader” (2016). Although I am not that satisfied with its overall result, I appreciate its style, mood, performance to some degree, and, in my inconsequential opinion, it surely has more life and personality than, say, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2010). I still hesitate to recommend it, but it is a curious misfire at least.