Review: 'Vox Lux', Natalie Portman Gives A Showstopping Performance As A Delusional Pop Diva

Thank goodness Brady Corbet isn't making movies as deadly serious as The Childhood of a Leader, anymore. If the actor-turned-director is going to step behind the camera and tackle big issues, might as well have some fun with it. With the jagged edged, pop music blitzed Vox Lux he's definitely getting more experimental in exploring the relationship between national tragedy and YouTube celebrity. It makes for an odd collision of tones and not every ingredient in Corbet's mad concoction works, but if you can endure it long enough to witness Natalie Portman's manic transformation into a pop starlet with delusions of grandeur, it's worth the wait.

The third major drama this awards season tackling the high cost of fame in the music business, Vox Lux has more in common with Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born than big concert performances. All three films feature protagonists who have been swallowed up by celebrity, but there's no tragic fall from grace in this case. There's self-absorption and the giving up of one's ideals, sure, but it all seems to be part of the public performance that Vox Lux's protagonist, Celeste, has become comfortable with.

Corbet's film begins like something out of a horror movie, and the grainy camerawork by Lol Parker only aids in drafting this murderous aura. In 1999, notably the same year as Columbine, a school shooter calmly guns down a teacher who had been cheerfully bantering with her students just moments ago. The shabby-looking kid then turns his attention to the terrified class, forcing them into a corner. Only one attempts to reach out to him with compassion, Celeste (played by Tomorrowland's Raffey Cassidy), who even agrees to stay behind so long as the others can leave unharmed. For a moment the shooter seems to be moved, but he shoots anyway, hitting Celeste in the spine and leaving her with a pain that will be with her for life.

But out of tragedy springs opportunity. Celeste reconnects with her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), who vows never to leave her side again. They even make music together, and a song they perform at a service for the victims goes viral. Suddenly, Celeste is an overnight sensation. She's got a creepy manager (Jude Law), she's taking trips to Europe and staying out way too late, indulging in drugs and sex with overage men who remind her of the school shooter. It's as creepy as it sounds.  She's making loud, nonsensical pop music that nevertheless speaks to a certain generation. The compassionate Celeste we saw for just a few minutes doesn't really seem to exist anymore.

Split into two Acts, titled "Genesis" and then "Regenesis", Vox Lux exhibits a split personality that can be jarring but also speaks to Celeste's mercurial nature. The first half is a whirlwind of tragedy, teenage hormones, and bizarre music videos. Even Scott Walker's score seems to collide with itself as ominous chords clash with the Sia-produced pop tracks which Celeste performs.  Willem Dafoe's tongue-in-cheek narration suggests the whole thing is something of a joke, regardless of how deathly significant he tries to make it sound. It's unclear whether Corbet is celebrating the overnight sensations created by our country's fascination with tragedy or mocking it.

The second half belongs completely to Natalie Portman who puts on a tour de force show as the adult-aged Celeste. It's 2017 and she's developed a Staten Island accent as wide as the New York Harbor, and a severe dislike for Eleanor, now relegated to songwriting duty. She also has a teenaged daughter, Albertine (played by Cassidy in an awkward casting move), who spends more time with Eleanor than with her mother. It shows in their icy relationship. Celeste's career has hit some turbulence due to a public scandal, but she's preparing for a big return-home show when a terrorist attack linked to her first music video only opens up a new can of worms.

It also leads to one epic meltdown during a press conference. One in which Celeste basically calls herself a goddess to be worshipped, and leans on her past tragedy as a way of deflecting criticism. It's ugly, but incredibly entertaining as most public meltdowns tend to be. Corbet doesn't need Dafoe's droll narration to bang us over the head with reasons behind Celeste's transformation. It's all right there in the paranoia created by the isolated world in which she exists, the spotlight of the hovering paparazzi on the outside, and the lack of a real and loving childhood. He leaves the melodramatics to the comically larger-than-life performances, which work well with his off-brand camera angles, crazy editing, and bizarre casting. It creates a weird sort of fantasy world that Celeste exists in that we are looking at from the outside, and you feel that most during an overlong but hypnotic concert performance in which Portman belts out Sia-written power ballads to a crowd of adoring fans.  You know her singing isn't great, and you know the concert is really pushing it on time, and yet you don't want to look away. Vox Lux is a lot like that, too. However, there's authenticity behind all the glitz and glam. Portman also grew up too fast in the world of show business, and having Sia as a producer must have lent valuable insights into the cutthroat music industry.

I don't know if Corbet is a great director, but he's not afraid to take risks and that makes him somebody to watch. He seems to have a lot to say but has yet to come up with good storied with which to say it. Vox Lux as a character study is totally engrossing but there isn't much of a story here, and not much of an attempt to tell one. But Portman is such a magnetic, commanding presence that Vox Lux is better every moment she's on screen. If only she had been there more.

Rating: 3 out of 5