What’s Up at the Movies: Review of “Vox Lux”

Applying the labels of “good” or “bad” to a film can be difficult, and that’s primarily because they can mean many different things. Cinema is an artform that demands attention to craft on multiple levels, and a poorly-made film is one thing, but what an individual viewer appreciates or enjoys tends to be highly subjective. Tastes vary so widely that one person’s “great” can easily be someone else’s “terrible,” and neither of them have to be wrong. For critics, who are supposed to do more than simply share their personal opinion, it’s easier to talk about films in terms of intent and effect.

Each movie is essentially a series of choices, and good artists make those choices consciously to cause the viewer to react in a certain way. This could be a director framing a character’s face in close-up to make the audience empathize with them, or an editor using sharp, frantic cuts to create confusion and disorientation, and it’s the critic’s job to explain what about those choices did or didn’t work. A “bad” film for a critic is one that doesn’t seem to make conscious choices, either because of sloppy craftwork or because of blindly following an established formula to play it safe. “Good” films are well-made and take risks, but even “good” films can receive negative reviews if the filmmaker’s choices were ineffective.

Vox Lux, Brady Corbet’s new film about the rise of a turbulent popstar named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy and NataliePortman), is not a “bad” film. Titled sections and a voiceover from Willem Dafoe give the film a clear, intentional structure. The camera work is strong, at times phenomenal. The aesthetics and performances achieve a certain tone,stylistic, hollow and subtly sinister, that the viewer cannot help but experience. It is, for the most part, well-crafted and clearly the product of a definitive artistic vision. However, Vox Lux is also full of choices that don’t work.

In 1999, a teenage Celeste Montgomery (Cassidy) survives a violent tragedy, and when her heartfelt song at a funeral garners national attention, she decides to pursue a career in music. After agreeing to work with a manager (Jude Law), she and her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) are ushered into the turbulent world of stardom on a road paved with drugs, alcohol and scandal. The second half then flashes forward to 2017, when a now 31-year-old Celeste (Portman) tries to jumpstart her troubled career with a concert in her hometown and simultaneously struggles to connect with her own teenage daughter, Albertine (also Cassidy). This structure is one of the film’s greatest flaws, satisfied with juxtaposing the two versions of Celeste when it is the transition that would be most engaging. Vox Lux could also have used a much higher dose of Portman’s over-the-top yet compelling performance, particularly when Cassidy’s is so uninspired — I found myself wishing for the time-jump almost half an hour before it came, only to be disappointed that her similarly-wooden Albertine was so frequently Portman’s scene partner.

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Corbet’s ambitious reach often exceeded his grasp, and though this is admirable, it muddled the film’s focus and message. Despite the adult Celeste being such a clear indictment of the modern celebrity, the attempt to intertwine her music career with senseless violence only makes it harder to explain how she became this way. Was her character shaped by her trauma, or did the music industry strip her of her innocence too soon? Is pop music itself soulless and corrupting, or has Celeste always carried an evil inside her? Vox Lux is clever enough to suggest these questions but unequipped to tease them out, and the scenes describing dreams and visions that want to add a layer of ambiguity come across alienatingly melodramatic.

Many of Corbet’s choices are designed to jar and disquiet the viewer, particularly the unflinching way in which the camera fixates on cruelty, but he too often succeeds in repelling us from the film itself. Character interactions are frequently odd, drifting inconsistently from insightful to unrelatable. Where the first violent event is deeply affecting, a later attempt to incorporate 9/11 feels out of place, unearned.  Scenes drag, particularly the overlong concert ending that kills any dramatic momentum. Vox Lux is a “good” film that is also a failure, and there are better things to do with your time than endure that frustration. 

WhatsUpRI Rating: 1.5 out of 5

WhatsUp Ratings Guide
5- Excellent – Don’t miss it
4- Very Good – Well worth your time
3- Good – Solid, but not earthshattering
2- Fair – Not quite ready for prime time
1- Poor – Don’t waste your time or money