Normally, I don’t like to compare one film to another when doing a film review. But Vox Lux is very much what people are labeling it as: The anti-A Star Is Born. It’s much more cynical and also quite violent. Yet, I still found it to be pretty brilliant. Understandably, not everyone is completely on board with it but it still had some interesting things to say about the nature of celebrity and how artistry can be used as a way to heal.
After Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives a school shooting, both she and her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) perform a song at a candlelight vigil. After their performance, Celeste becomes a rising pop star under the guidance of Eleanor and a talent manager (Jude Law). The film then cuts to 18 years later where adult Celeste (Natalie Portman) is raising a teenage daughter (also played by Raffey Cassidy). As Celeste is prepping for a comeback tour after a series of scandals, she becomes rattled by a terrorist massacre that demands her attention.
When it comes to the film’s two halves, the first half is admittedly superior because it demonstrates the theme of artistry acting as a healer more. However, the second half still manages to make a heavy impact and that is in large part due to Natalie Portman’s performance. As an actress, it feels like she’s been making a habit out of topping herself with each performance because after giving a career-defining performance in Jackie and doing some of the best work of her career this year in Annihilation, she delivers a performance that rivals both of them.
Celeste is not a very easy person to like given her grand egotism. Yet Portman is able to let us see the tragedy and vulnerability behind her vanity. During a scene in a diner between Portman and Raffey Cassidy, Portman use her eyes to demonstrate Celeste’s sense of ego and her vulnerability within a span of seconds. She doesn’t shy away from Celeste’s selfish qualities but she still is able to showcase how she’s also someone who has clearly been through a lot. Aside from the shooting that indirectly launched her into pop stardom, Celeste has also dealt with severe media scrutiny throughout her career.
With all that being said about Natalie Portman, one person who doesn’t seem to be getting enough credit for her spectacular work is Raffey Cassidy. As young Celeste, she brilliantly underplays the shades of Celeste’s ego that would eventually be demonstrated in full force by Natalie Portman. Although she’s slightly underutilized as Celeste’s daughter Albertine, she still does a solid job at presenting her frustration and concerns over her mother’s antics. Even though her role is smaller, Stacy Martin gives a terrific, astute performance as Eleanor, Celeste’s neglected sister and songwriter of her music.
Speaking of songwriting, the songs written by the always reliable singer/songwriter Sia prove to be quite dynamic. They manage to range from being catchy, prototypical pop tunes like “Your Body Talk” and “Sweat And Tears” to songs that tie into Celeste’s trauma like “Alive” and “Wrapped Up.” Then there’s the '70s-style score by Scott Walker which has a haunting effect with its use of screeching violins and ominous choirs. Even if the score contrasts with the pop music, it still helps give the picture an overall eclectic musical sound.
Despite some unneeded narration by Willem Dafoe that gives the film some slight pretension, Vox Lux still manages to be an ambitious masterpiece. As previously mentioned, it won’t be a film for everyone because it goes to some dark places and as terrific as Natalie Portman is, her performance might be too big for some people. But it still provides some powerful commentary on the nature of celebrity and demonstrates a person who has experienced the ups and downs of fame but still refuses to let people kick her down. No pun intended but Vox Lux plays a pretty impactful, poetic song.