Vox Lux

Year: 2018
Production Co: Bold Films
Director: Brady Corbett
Writer: Brady Corbett/Mona Fastvold
Cast: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle

If it was possible to judge a film's creative success on it's originality alone this might be the film of the decade. The soundscape, pacing, performance style and (metaphorical) lens used to situate events are like nothing you've ever seen before.

What kind of person is Celeste, you find yourself asking after its over? As portrayed by Raffey Cassidy as a teenager and Natalie Portman as a grown up, it might be simply that she's an innocent caught up in a high powered world of stardom who lets it and all its destructive trappings get the better of her. Or she might have always been just a self-involved bitch just waiting for circumstances to let it come out.

We first meet her as a student at a New York high school where a classmate storms into the classroom with a gun and kills the teacher. After it appears Celeste is successfully talking him down from hurting anyone else, he opens fire on her too. As the ambulance is speeding her to hospital, we learn that he killed everyone else and missed all her vital arteries and organs, getting her through the neck.

During the months of recovery, in which Celeste's guilt-ridden sister Ella stays by her side religiously, the pair play the organ, write and sing music, and when they perform one of their original songs during the remembrance service for the tragedy, it blows up online.

In short order Celeste has a manager (I didn't even recognise Jude Law at first) and is meeting with record company executives to work on a deal to capitalise on her success. A couple of months later the three (her sister has become her kind of lady-in-waiting) are off to Stockholm on tour. But the wheels are already falling off, the girls partying a bit too hard and putting themselves in dangerous territory with older men, drugs and nightclubs.

But Celeste's star continues to rise, and suddenly we jump forward almost 20 years. Masked and armed men all leave the changing booths along a Croatian resort and start firing automatic weapons at the beachgoers.

It's a horrific terrorist attack and as we learn when we meet the older Celeste and her entourage preparing for a day of press and a performance that night, the men were wearing masks identical to ones she wore in one of her music videos.

The older and wiser manager, the same record company exec still responsible for Celeste's output (Jennifer Ehle) and the grown Ella (Stacy Martin) are all scrambling over what to do about the macabre connection – ignore it, issue a statement and stay on message or something else entirely.

It's bad enough Celeste is about to face the press at such a time, but even worse when we learn how erratic and unmanageable she's become. She escapes the fray in the swanky New York hotel by taking her teenage daughter Albertine (also played by Cassidy) to a nearby diner for lunch.

It's there we see what a train wreck Celeste is. Though Portman's Noo Yawk accent is a bit overripe, she really sinks her teeth into the conceited, trash talking superstar, alluding to the alcohol problems, pain medication addiction, affairs and at least one drink driving crime behind her.

As the day goes on, Celeste throws even more tantrums and gets even further unhinged, lashing out at everybody around her including her sister, who's been with her since the very beginning – jealousy, accusations and recriminations flying.

It culminates in the company all travelling to the venue before Celeste breaks down completely, sobbing in her sister's arms, begging forgiveness, crying that she can't go on, etc. Ella talks her back off the ledge, she gets dressed and takes the stage and the film takes us through three or four increasingly jaunty but vapid pop songs.

Celeste, the denouement seems to be asserting, is a media concoction, a commodity, machine tooled on an industrial production line, the woman underneath whose art came out of suffering long gone and nothing let in her place.

It says something quite broad about art and fame, but I was more interested in the way it tells the story. We jump 20 years in to the future and the centrepiece of the next section is the same character just going about her life – sitting in a restaurant with her daughter arguing about their pasts.

To have left such a long gap and then arrive at something so mundane is jarring (in a good way), especially the way the story then cleverly releases details about Celeste's prior life only through dialogue.

But it's easy to see how that jarring effect might put people off. Plenty of viewers might wonder why it would even jump forward 20 years at all, or whether it would be better just telling the adult Celeste's story. But the intent seems to be to show how corrupting fame can be (though there's nothing new about that idea, which might put yet more viewers off), and the temporal and musical style might seem to be saying more than there actually is there.

The final concert scenes are also way too long, and though it might have been writer/director Brady Corbett and star Natalie Portman enjoying her portrayal of a pop star at work too much and not knowing when enough was enough, the amount of time Celeste can stay upright might be adding weight to the idea that she's grown into an automaton that did its job despite there being no more humanity behind it.

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