Like its subject, “Vox Lux” is demanding, pretentious and self-congratulatory, although the film takes these traits to the point of cinematic onanism. Occasionally arrestingly shocking, it almost feels like, having grabbed your attention, it doesn’t really know what to do with it beyond hitting you over the head with its achingly obvious allegory for American cultural decline.
Opening with an archly art-house title sequence, any eye-rolling is stopped as a scintillatingly tense school shooting plays out, introducing us to Celeste (Raffey Cassidy, “Tomorrowland”) who is wounded in an attack which kills the rest of her classmates. With her sister, she composes an emotional song about the tragedy which becomes an anthem, propelling her towards superstardom after their song attracts the attention of a veteran manager (Jude Law “Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow”).
Many years later, Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman, “Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones”) has weathered numerous scandals and endures a toxic ambivalence with the media. Her fragile state is put under further pressure when a terrorist attack in Croatia is carried out using iconic masks from one her earlier hits.
While there’s no doubting Corbet’s skills as a director, it’s in the writing that Vox Lux fails to find its voice. Weighed down by the ham-fisted obviousness of its themes – supplemented, in case you’re really not getting it, by an unnecessary narration by Willem Dafoe (“Speed 2: Cruise Control”), the movie ends up bludgeoning you senseless with its own sense of self-importance. Portman is…fine, I guess? Both she and Jude Law pour everything into their accents rather than emotional authenticity but then this, despite its marketing, isn’t a Natalie Portman film – its real star is Raffey Cassidy, pulling double duty as young Celeste and Celeste’s daughter Albertine.
The time jump to adult Celeste breaks the movie irreparably because the changes in personality (and lack of any change in Jude Law’s evidently ageless Manager) and the inferred events which have shaped them remain unarticulated and unconvincing. Adding to the sense of charlatanism is the portrayal of pop music. The songs, by Sia – one of the film’s producers – are decent enough but don’t match the film’s timeframe and Celeste’s debut music video is laughably naff while the ‘spectacular’ stage show which closes the movie is dispiritingly cheap, unconvincing and so poorly choreographed that it fails to reach even the standard of a high school musical production.
Arthouse for arthouse’s sake, “Vox Lux” wastes its cast, its premise and its potential through its inability to tell its story in an engaging and, ultimately, authentic way.