Natalie Portman has been a lot of things, pre-teen trainee assassin, prima ballerina, first lady, stripper, manic pixie dream girl, queen (both in 16th century England and a galaxy, far, far away) and Ashton Kutcher’s fuck buddy amongst them and, whilst she has delivered some remarkable performances throughout her career, her latest effort might just be her best yet. Exceptional in the likes of Black Swan and Jackie, Portman has again delivered a mesmerising turn, this time as Celeste, a pop star looking to ‘relaunch’ in the wake of a series of personal scandals. It is almost an hour into Vox Lux before Portman appears, but when she does it is something to behold. Her character, whose life and career has been shaped by tragedy, cycles through the full gamut of emotions, from tenderness to rage to tears, taking all those around her along for the ride. Her honesty makes her a nightmare and Portman seems to relish the opportunity – perhaps for the first time in her career – to play somebody who is really unlikeable. Celeste is a nightmare for those charged with trying to protect her from herself, but she is brilliant fun to watch.
We first meet Celeste as a 14-year-old high school student (played by Raffey Cassidy) about to bear witness to an unspeakable tragedy from which she emerges as the only survivor. It is at a memorial service for the victims that she delivers a song which gains her media attention and the interests of an artist manager (Jude Law) and record company executive Josie (Jennifer Ehle). Whilst her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) tries to protect her from the potential pitfalls of fame at such a young age, they become enamoured with this exciting new world of recording studios, music videos, nightclubs and nice hotels. In one scene we see Celeste lying on a bed with a much older man who is drifting in and out of consciousness; she also looks tired, her mascara-smudged eyes staring at the camera as she delivers a monologue about how she loves pop music because it makes people feel good.
When Portman makes her entrance as Celeste, it is 17 years later and she is a bona fide pop star whose return to the stage, as we find out via a voice-over that is unmistakably Willem Dafoe, comes in the wake of a series of personal dramas that include a stint in rehab and a car accident. She now has a 15-year-old daughter Albertine (also played by Cassidy) for whom Eleanor has been largely responsible for raising, without necessarily securing much recognition or appreciation from Celeste. Both Josie and Law’s unnamed manager are still on the scene and it is the latter who seems to be the only person Celeste can trust, although their relationship is far from being strictly professional. At one point, Celeste promises he can “fuck her a little while we’re high” in a bid to encourage him to imbibe with her. There is little plot to speak of and many of the scenes are simply Celeste in conversation with the various members of her inner circle as they prepare for Celeste’s homecoming concert on Staten Island in the wake of another act of violence to which she has been vicariously linked. Portman’s jittery, manic portrayal of a woman bearing the scars (both physical and psychological) doesn’t make for comfortable viewing but she is utterly compelling.
Writer/director Brady Corbet, an actor whose only previous feature behind the camera is 2015’s The Childhood of a Leader (in which Martin also starred), has conjured something quite extraordinary with Vox Lux, which reaches its conclusion when Celeste hits the stage, performing anthems about empowerment and survival (penned by Aussie songwriter extraordinaire Sia) that are totally believable as pop hits. Portman is magnetic as a woman whose outwardly arrogant, petulant persona masks the insecurity and self-doubt that is nourished by the knowledge that her fame has been predicated by something other than any talent she may or may not possess. Corbet doesn’t offer us anything definitive with regard to what the future holds for Celeste, but you can’t help but feel that it won’t end well. The film raises questions about the notion of fame and celebrity in a contemporary context, but Corbet ultimately allows the viewer to decide for themselves. Sure, Celeste is a nightmare, but is she simply a product of her circumstances or is it something altogether more calculated? What you think about that might influence how you engage with the film, but there is no denying that Corbet has created something unique and, at times, quite breathtaking in its audacity and execution.