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Vox Lux
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by Jay Seaver

"A voice that says more or less than it seems."
3 stars

Huh. I have apparently aged to the point where I am incapable of distinguishing pop music from a parody of such. That makes this one difficult to figure; writer/director Brady Corbet gives his story of a pop star's rise and potential stumble a heightened presentation and occasionally absurd details but otherwise plays things almost completely straight, cutting off the easy routes to mockery or earnest appreciation. It's an interesting set-up, but one which often leaves its characters and audience in an in-between spot.

Something that really does the movie no favors is the split into two very distinct halves. In the first part, a teenager (Raffey Cassidy) is the sole survivor of a shooting on the first day back from school in January of 2000, and the song she sings at the memorial service, written by her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), captures the heart of the country, with a canny manager (Jude Law) offering to guide her through her introduction to show business. It turns out she's a natural, and in fact, it's kind of unnerving how easily Celeste takes to show business after surviving a horrific act of violence.

The satire is sharp in this first act, although sometimes in obvious ways - it's got a perfect narrator in Willem Dafoe, and Corbet gives him dry lines to say about Scandinavian producers and teenaged girls flying around the world chaperoned only by an older sister who is, perhaps, not quite the responsible young woman everybody thinks her to be. The grainy photography that looks like home movie footage of a much earlier vintage doesn't just make it feel like it's slightly anachronistic, though, but makes the whole segment an extension of the opening which comes from the perspective of the shooter and plays like a recreation, and not shifting the style up almost makes Celeste trying to become a star into continuing trauma or rehab.

Not that Raffey Cassidy necessarily plays it that way; as much as we see her as sweet and kind during the shooting that, when she thinks she's about to die and there's no point in putting on an act, there's a set of fierce and frightening instincts underneath. Cassidy puts an occasional quaver into her voice that could be innocence or simply inexperience, and doesn't try to make it sound deeper or fuller even when she's highlighting how assured Celeste is, although she never sounds tentative or weak. It's a performance that encapsulates the paradoxical nature of this sort of teen idol - their appeal comes from being pristine and separate from adult concerns, but they don't even make their first step into the spotlight without incredibly driven and often unsentimental - and that tug-of-war skewers the industry as well as anything could.

Act I has crises on both ends, but what effect the second has on Celeste is only vaguely hinted at by the narration, to be revealed in the second half. But when the movie picks up 16 years later, she's doesn't seem as singular, just another kind of awful pill-popping celebrity whose tendency to make a fool of herself in interviews doesn't seem as fascinating a phenomenon. This second half is not quite compressed into real time, instead just covering an afternoon as she returns home for a concert promoting her new album "Vox Lux". She's still got the same manager and publicist as before, and it's the first time she's seen her sister and her daughter Albertine (Cassidy) in some time.

Natalie Portman tears into the part of the older Celeste, fiercely committed and astonishingly unhinged, and there is something kind of exhilarating about a movie star taking a part that had been primed for sympathy and just absolutely not giving a damn about whether she's "likable". The discontinuity with Cassidy's Celeste can be a bit much - aside from it being odd that 30-ish Celeste would have a thicker accent after traveling the world and seldom being home than teenage Celeste, too much of what the audience latched onto before was gone has boiled off so that it feels like absolutely every other character in her circle who deals with her monster is much more interesting than the pop star herself. The stakes seem to get bashed down to triviality, and if they don't, there's not really time for the audience to feel that the circumstances of the second act's opener are messing her up more than usual.

Or maybe that's the point, laid out in the first half, that pop is about being able to make yourself feel good when things are falling apart, and none of the rest matters, or is even any of a fan's damn business. She can put on a show and make your spirits life involuntarily, and if that's the case, does it really matter to you whether her life is a trainwreck, even if you fell in love with her for being something bright in a dark world? There is nevertheless something peculiar about the way it seems to have fallen into the theater from a parallel universe - the final songs in musical films and great pop songs alike are usually driven in some way by familiarity, even if that just means knowing that they're going to rewire one's brain by repeated listening rather than their being reinvented through the film - and though the songs (written by Sia) aren't bad at all, they pack no punch at the climax beyond kind of sounding enough like good pop songs to make Celeste's fame believable.

That point seems well-camouflaged, at least for us olds who can't tell whether the extended concert sequence in the end is serious or not (when Celeste says that her new album is "sci-fi anthems", it sounds like a punchline, but Janelle Monae has made a career of it, so maybe not). It feels a bit like Corbet has dug into pop culture and found empty space like the endless tunnel Celeste dreams of, but there's just enough potential in this space for it to be room to create as much as a void, making the film an enigma worth examining even if it is frustrating.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32651&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/02/18 20:39:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 AFI Fest For more in the 2018 AFI Fest series, click here.

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USA
  07-Dec-2018 (R)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  07-Dec-2018




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