Ambitious VOX LUX at AFI Fest

2018 AFI Fest, Natalie Portman, Brady Corbet

Written and directed by Brady Corbet, Vox Lux (2018) begins in 1999 with a shocking event reminiscent of the climax of Gus Van Zant’s Elephant (2003), loosely based on the Columbine killers. In Vox Lux, music student Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives a school shooting. Incredibly, she writes a song with her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) that becomes an anthem for survivors of that and other tragedies.

The sisters begin working with a producer/manager (Jude Law). Celeste is gifted but not emotionally up to the rigors of the cutthroat entertainment industry. A record company publicist (Jennifer Ehle) recognizes that but Celeste and her other handlers persevere.

Cassidy is ideal for the role of the young Celeste, showing vulnerability and resilience. Unfortunately, there’s an abrupt, discordant fast forward twenty years. Natalie Portman, who looks nothing like Cassidy, takes over as Celeste. Cassidy becomes Albertine, Celeste’s daughter. Confused yet? There’s a Voice of God narrator (Willem Dafoe) who periodically fills in plot points, but he’s there primarily to set a tone.

Vox Lux‘s take on the rise and fall of a music icon compares unfavorably with  A Star is Born (2018). In that movie, the female protagonist’s transition from neophyte to star is gradual, nuanced and much more believable. In Vox Lux, Portman’s Celeste has little if no resemblance to her younger self. Unlike the young Celeste, the older woman has an annoying East Coast accent and she’s obnoxious all around. Occasionally, the overacting veers into Showgirls (1995) territory When we finally see her performing, it’s an anti-climax, Janet Jackson meets Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas with strobe lights and garish costumes.

It isn’t as if we weren’t warned. In his introduction, director Corbet told the Los Angeles audience, dealing with major fires and a mass shooting, that we were welcome to see his film some other time. After standing in line for two or three hours waiting for the chance to see Natalie Portman in person, no one budged.

At the Q&A, Portman, changed out of her ball gown into casual clothing, gave stock answers to stock questions. When Corbet reappeared, he provided insight into the film and his reasons for making it, saying that the last century was about the banality of evil. This one is about its pageantry.