A Disquieting Vibe
If you are in a viewing situation that allows this, wind back to the first scene of Vox Lux immediately upon reaching its final frame (of the credits running in reverse and in silence over an enigmatic series of textures). Everything in this opening is strange, enigmatic, indirect, irresolute: the sound of gunshots over the placid view of a suburban street (presumably signalling the deaths of the household’s inhabitants, unseen); the odd movements of a car and its occupant; the sudden transition from night to day. Even the exposition of a key detail – the suicide of mass-murderer “Cullen Active” (Logan Riley Bruner) – is given to us off-handedly, just as something visible (if you catch it) in a mobile shot.
From this fragmented opening – which switches its POV several times, reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s L’Argent (1983) and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) alike (Van Sant’s brilliant sound designer Leslie Shatz is back on the case here) – to the pop concert finale of Vox Lux, there’s a huge distance travelled, yet also numerous threads of connection. And both God and the Devil are mixed up, mysteriously, in these two extreme points …
It’s not every week at the movies that you catch a Natalie Portman vehicle which includes voice-over narration from Willem Dafoe evoking Stockholm as “what business scholars and economic geographers call an industry cluster”, or describing characters as being “somewhat on the losing side of Reaganomics”. Not to mention the lordly encapsulation of its heroine, Celeste, as “rolling off the cultural tongue like a principled anecdote”.
Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux is a boldly stylised and intellectually ambitious film about pop music. Or rather – to quote its own closing titles – it is a “21st century portrait” in which the up-and-down biographies of pop stars, as part of the general celebrity industry, intersect queasily with a cultural ambience marked by school massacres, terrorist attacks and political leaders who trade on the easy nihilism of “fake news”.
That’s a lot to cram into one story, but Corbet is up for the challenge. First off, he breaks Celeste’s trajectory into two very different halves. The “Prelude” set in 1999 and “Act I: Genesis” cover the first steps to Celeste’s stardom. Incarnated in this half by Raffey Cassidy, Celeste survives trauma (the tragic school shooting); the humble song written with her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) and performed at a friend’s funeral swiftly becomes the nation’s “anthem”. The film then skips elliptically through the usual phases of grooming to become a pop star: meetings with agents and managers, recording sessions, the making of a slick video.
Suddenly, Corbet flings us far ahead, into 2017, for Act II of the tale. Celeste (now played by Portman) is 31, and in desperate need of (you guessed it) a little “Regenesis” in her somewhat tattered and sordid career. (The scandalous incident that has undone her oddly echoes with certain details of Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes [1938-2012] and his 1999 road accident in Broome, along with its aftermath – both Hughes and Celeste mouthing off about malign media “conspiracies” against them.) This half of the film is not synoptic like the first; instead, it telescopes everything – disastrous press conferences, a tense exchange between Celeste and her teenage daughter Albertine (Cassidy again), behind-the-scenes preparations – into the single day of a big, comeback performance, culminating (as in the finale of Prince’s Purple Rain ) with 15 straight minutes of a live show.
Well, fairly straight – except for yet another ghostly insertion of Dafoe reading what is possibly the most “omniscient” narration in cinema history. This is Corbet’s way: the moment we risk getting too immersed in the individual characters and their interpersonal dramas, the film yanks us out with that voice-over. This level of Olympian (or Brechtian) detachment will drive some viewers crazy, but it’s of a piece with everything Vox Lux aspires to do – and mostly succeeds in doing.
Although the typical phases of a music biopic are used by Corbet, he is also a dab hand at circumventing or twisting our expectations. When Celeste “releases stress” before the big show by indulging in sex and drugs (with her manager played by Jude Law), we count on her toppling over, messing up or even dying before our eyes on stage – absolutely none of which happens. (Corbet may have been remembering here John Cassavetes’ masterly Opening Night ). On another level of proceedings, Cassidy and Portman, so starkly different in every aspect of their performances, hardly seem to be inhabiting the same character named Celeste – and that is precisely Corbet’s point: identities are malleable, history has no continuity, everything solid melts into the air.
While steeped in the history of many popular rise-and-fall-and-re-rise movies about pop or rock music – from Bette Midler’s The Rose (1979) to the latest, woeful version of A Star is Born (2018) – Vox Lux belongs to a more renegade tradition. Like Peter Watkins’ Privilege (1967), Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998) and the little-known but sensational French production Les Idoles (1968), it takes the whole spectacle of the music industry as a grotesque mirror of broader problems and trends in society – here updated past the leftist ideas of previous generations to include a dizzy sense of postmodern confusion and irresolution. Even at its most pointedly ironic, the film seems to share in the frazzled uncertainties of its characters.
Moreover, Corbet belongs to a certain loose family of filmmakers who shun the classical ideal of an invisible style and, instead, make intensely evident the forms and shapes of their work – with, quite literally at times, the lines of architecture, the movements of camera or actors, and the beats of music cued up together in strict unison. Not to mention the explicitly novelistic carve-up into acts, epilogue and prologue! This is not simply for the sake of some show-off virtuosity; rather, the most powerful effects of such films (when they work) derive from this insistence on us recognising their form. The Big Daddy of this clan is unquestionably Stanley Kubrick, with Austria’s Michael Haneke running a close second. But the progeny are quite diverse and far-flung, including Peter Greenaway (The Pillow Book, 1996), Bertrand Bonello (Nocturama, 2016), Amat Escalante (The Untamed, 2016) and Corbet.
If one thing unites them all, it’s an ambivalent fascination with power and control: how people internalise, in their heads and bodies, the regimentation of a social order – whether that order be an army patrol, or an arena pop concert. Indeed, Corbet films the gauntlet crossed by the adult Celeste on her way to the stage – through endless corridors – exactly as Kubrick filmed the trenches of World War I in Paths of Glory (1957), using long, relentless, geometrical movements. Not far below the veneer of civilisation, however, lurks a mass of seething, Dionysian drives (like lust and aggression, or more plainly the will to dissociate and “get out” of oneself) that threaten, at every unstable moment, to topple us into an unruly, animal kingdom.
I did not enjoy Corbet’s directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader (2016), one little bit. I found it – as others may find Vox Lux – arch, pretentious, emotionally distant, rigidly formal, and overstated in the way it spelt out and hammered home its big ideas about history, politics and family life. There were certainly things to admire in it – such as Scott Walker’s thunderous orchestral score (Walker is back for Vox Lux, blending his characteristically unsettling music with the ingenious song repertoire composed for Celeste by Australian star Sia). But there is a sureness of touch – as well as an air of poetic mystery – which Corbet brings to his second film, and it bodes well for his future as an auteur.
Best of all, there is a beguiling ambivalence attached to almost everything in Vox Lux. In one sense, it’s easy to make a movie that mocks pop music and every lousy thing it can stand for. When Celeste messianically declares herself to be the “new faith” and even a “new New Testament”, we wince alongside those around her; but by the time she’s reached her third triumphant “anthem” on stage, we can’t help but bop along – just like Ellie and Albertine buried deep in the crowd – to the “affirmative”, high-energy vibe.
A 21st century portrait? I’ll buy that.
A shorter version of this text appeared at the Australian-based website Screenhub.com.au where, since mid December 2018, I have contributed regularly. Postscript: the great Scott Walker died 22 March 2019.
© Adrian Martin February 2019