Venice 2018: Brady Corbet's Intoxicating 'Vox Lux' is Bold & Brilliant
by Alex Billington
September 9, 2018
In a world of movies about popstars and how inspiring it is to make your dreams of fame and glory come true, Vox Lux gives us the exact opposite. The second feature film made by actor Brady Corbet (of The Childhood of a Leader), Vox Lux tells the story of a young girl who quickly becomes a mega-famous popstar after an odd beginning: she survives a horrible school shooting and sings with her sister at the memorial ceremony. The song goes viral, she gets discovered by a shady manager, the rest is history. I didn't realize that Brady Corbet was such a genius, but my goodness this film is something else. It's extremely smart and provocative and true and shameless in its expression of this truth. It's so brutally honest and so accurate in what it says about society, that it's going to seriously piss people off. Either they just don't get it, or don't understand it, or they don't like seeing this much searing truth presented this way. But I think it's brilliant.
I will say it now because I believe it: Vox Lux is ahead of its time. Not in technical filmmaking terms, but in terms of storytelling, or truth-telling. The young girl's name is Celeste, played by both Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman, and the film is presented in a few chapters: split mostly between her origins and break out moments in 2000-2001, and her "re-genesis" with a big hometown concert nearly 16 years later in 2017 after a life of worldwide fame. What has all of this turned her into? Just wait until you find out. The main thesis of Vox Lux is that everything is cyclical and connected, even if we don't see it. Popstars and terrorists, fame and failure, greed and glory, good and bad. You may say this is obvious, sure, but to see it presented so boldly in this way through confident, ambitious filmmaking is exhilarating. Every minute the film would say something else honest about society, and every time it did I freaked out with glee from how accurate it all is.
What makes this film really sing, especially, is the performances from Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman. She's so sweet and innocent at the start, and it's important to see this. Portman's performance later is so exuberant and boisterous, but flawless in its portrayal of someone who has been pushed to the extremes of her own personality and of society's expectations of her. There's also a casting decision in the second half that I believe is genius, further emphasizing the cyclical nature of everything. It could've been easy to cast someone else in the role, but it perfectly hammers home the idea of everything being the same and nothing changing. Literally. It's really not worth criticizing this (which will happen from others) for being too on-the-nose because it's such an astute and audacious choice, and works well to solidify the film's bigger thesis.
Much like Darren Aronofsky's Mother! and Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria, Vox Lux has so much worked into it and harshly criticizes society with its loud and proud storytelling. It both subtly and not-so-subtly shows that popstars and "feel good" music works as a emotional coverup for the bad aspects of society. It shows that this doesn't actually make things better and it's not actually good, it's all just a way to give us temporary relief, while further perpetuating the very awful elements of society that we all claim to want to grow away from. But no, everything we do only keeps everything the way it is. There's much more to the film than just this, but I don't want to give it all away - you should definitely see it for yourself and try to figure out what Brady is telling us. Because it's a genius breakdown and critical examination of society, and it's all in there.
I expect some (many?) people will end up hating this film, and that's fine. Mother! was hated, too. That's expected when a film lifts the curtain up and shows us how almost everything we think is good is keeping things bad. And how the cheesy, extra-happy, extra-fake world of popstars and fame is actually linked to greed, alcoholism, indulgent capitalism, and dangerous escapism. The film was shot and projected on film, which makes it even more iconic. There's also extensive narration by Willem Dafoe that makes it feel a bit like a Lars von Trier film, perhaps something Brady borrowed as a cinephile. This film has my support. I'm now one of its biggest fans. No matter how much hate it gets, I'll stand by it. Maybe it isn't perfect, but it's so staggeringly honest and ambitious and savage in its accuracy. And the truth most often needs its fans, too.
Alex's Venice 2018 Rating: 9.8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing