Vox LuxReviewed By alejandroariera
Posted 12/13/18 11:06:13
“A 21st Century Portrait” is how director Bryan Corbet subtitles his sophomoric effort, “Vox Lux.” I can think of a handful of films that are far more deserving of this subtitle, some of which I even saw this year: films such as “Sorry to Bother You,” Boots Riley’s surreal and phantasmagoric exploration of racism and class struggle and “Minding the Gap,” Bing Liu’s sympathetic portrait of youth, parenthood, and making ends meet in Middle America. Heck, given the recent revelations of Facebook’s relationship with Cambridge Analytica, how the latter harvested data from millions of users without their consent and how Facebook hired a lobbying firm to silence its critics, David Fincher’s and Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network” (2010) is THE “21st Century Portrait” par excellence. That’s not to say that “Vox Lux” is lacking in ideas, it’s just that Corbet doesn’t know what to do with them; he opts to throw everything against the wall to see what sticks, instead of thinking things through.Divided in three chapters and narrated by a laconic and detached Willem Dafoe, “Vox Lux” starts quite literally with a bang…or in this case, a round of gunfire as a male student dressed in black and wearing mascara walks into a classroom, shoots the teacher point blank and orders the rest of the students to stand against the wall. Only one person stands up to this Columbine copycat: 13-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) who tries unsuccessfully to convince him to put the guns down. Hospitalized with a spinal injury after the massacre, Celeste writes a song with sister Ellie (Stacey Martin) which becomes an overnight success, after she changes one pronoun turning it into an anthem for the nation’s victims of gun violence. Record labels come knocking at her door; she ends up hiring a foulmouthed over-protective manager (Jude Law, simply credited as The Manager) and an equally overbearing and controlling publicist (Jennifer Ehle) to represent her. The film’s first half is pretty much your standard “A Star Is Born” scenario as Celeste is shaped into a Britney Spears-like superstar (“At least she writes her own lyrics,” proclaims our ironic narrator); she learns how to dance, travels to Sweden to work with the industry’s top pop producer, shoots her first video, and catches her manager in fraganti with her sister as the Twin Towers’ collapse is broadcast live on their hotel room’s TV (Look! Relevance!).
The second half of the movie picks up the action 17 years later with another terrorist attack, this time at a beach resort in Croatia where a group of armed men, wearing the masks used in Celeste’s most famous music video, mow down dozens of tourists. The now 31-year-old pop star (now played by Natalie Portman) is preparing for a comeback (even though she refuses to acknowledge it as such) tour that kicks off in her hometown of Staten Island, where the school massacre took place. Celeste is now a narcissistic alcoholic estranged from her daughter Albertine (Cassidy again), who has been under the care of Ellie all these years, and is still managed by the same people. Even though the terrorist attack threatens to be a distraction, for Celeste this is nothing but background noise. The world, after all, revolves around her every whim, her every tantrum and breakdown, her every outrage. And so, in this final unbearable hour, we watch her swig down an extra-large cup of wine at the diner across the street from the hotel she’s staying at while explaining herself to her daughter to then belittle the diner’s manager for having the gall to ask her for a selfie; go mano a mano with a music journalist during a press junket; and binge on drugs with her manager before she hits the stage, ending in, perhaps, one of the most monotonous and uninspired concert sequences ever put on film (it helps little that “Vox Lux” is released months after “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the new “A Star is Born” which, even with all their flaws, provided us with very entertaining, toe-tapping, joyful concert sequences). If Corbet’s intention was to label all pop music as insipid, brainless, cringeworthy, he failed miserably, because, in the end, the whole point of pop music is that, no matter how insipid it may be, people do find refuge in it. But again, Corbet is unable to follow through or even develop one idea much less half a dozen. All this final concert sequence does is underline how frustratingly empty this whole enterprise is.
Corbet replaces depth with a series of dubious stylistic tics in an attempt to tie together two halves of a very uneven film. From its use to different aspect ratios (hey, if Wes Anderson did it…why can’t I?) to time lapses, shaky cams and sped-up film (not to mention starting the film with the end credits), it would be easy to label “Vox Lux” as a triumph of style over substance. The use of these cinematic techniques feels slapdash, however, the work of a film student trying to impress his filmmaking professor. It’s the work of a person who is too clever for his own good.
It makes you wonder what Natalie Portman was thinking of when she accepted to be part of this project until you realize that she, alongside co-star Law, is one of the film’s executive producers. And while that may have helped Corbet and his team secure the necessary financing for the film, it also heightens the sense that what we have in front of is nothing more and nothing less than a vanity project. Not only does Portman chew the scenery with her New Yawk accent (and people still dare criticize Colin Farrell for his weak attempt at a Chicago one in “Widows”… folks, he at least tried to sound Chicagoan without recurring to histrionics). She gesticulates, she screams hysterically, she stabs the air with her finger…it’s way beyond going over the top. There IS no top! You almost feel sorry for Cassidy who, after a sublime performance as Celeste in the first half where she conveyed pain, sorrow and the joy in finding comfort on this new musical adventure, is turned in this second half into a reactive sounding board to Portman’s mugging.“Vox Lux” is not only one of the most frustrating cinematic experiences of the year but also one of the darkest spots to what turned out to be another fantastic film for cinema (far superior to 2017 in my opinion). “Vox Lux” could have been so much more in the hands of a far more disciplined writer and director, one that could have lived up to its intentions of being “A 21st Century Portrait” in its explorations of how pop culture, in all its forms, holds a mirror to the world we live in. In the end, it is a missed opportunity.
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