The trashy pop star at the center of Brady Corbet’s “Vox Lux” is named Celeste. She’s played with exuberant brassiness by Natalie Portman, and has no illusions about herself. “I’m pretty sure,” she says, “that every year my videos keep getting worse and worse, but they’re doing better and better.” It’s a bizarre treat to watch Portman singing—very well—and strutting her stuff in a black sequined gown like a cross between Madonna and a Roomba Robot vacuum gone rogue. But the movie makes Celeste more than a consumer commodity. This boozy cynic is both the victim and embodiment of everything that’s wrong with America. Which, in the filmmaker’s scattershot reckoning, means pretty much everything, with special scorn reserved for popular culture and heavy emphasis on violence.
In other words, beneath the glitzy surface of “Vox Lux” lie deeper superficialities—so many that I found myself admiring the movie’s wild ambition and grinding my teeth at its pretentiousness. Every now and then, for example, a narrator, voiced by Willem Dafoe, comments on Celeste’s life in a mock-heroic tone that may have been meant to defuse the grandiosity, but only enhances it. In my favorite enhancement, Dafoe tells us that “Celeste’s loss of innocence curiously mirrored that of the nation.”
The element of violence is central to the plot. A school shooting early in the film leaves the young Celeste, played mournfully by Raffey Cassidy, physically injured and emotionally shattered. She can express her feelings only by writing, and then singing, a song that turns into a commercial hit—not just a hit but, the narrator tells us loftily, “an anthem for our nation,” and one that sends her hurtling down the road to fame.
In fact, the song is so schoolgirl-insipid that it might not pass muster as a middle-school anthem. But Celeste has a path she must follow, with more suffering to come in her personal life and much more violence around her: the events of 9/11, and another attack by terrorists wearing glitter masks from one of her videos. Along the way, her affect remains flat—the result of that traumatized girlhood—while her career continues to flourish in an industry that’s eager to merchandise her grief.
In fact, her flattened affect doesn’t deter from her superstardom; given the glamorous void of Celeste’s style, it may well be a plus. Ditto for paranoia—she thrives on a belief that the world is against her—and cynicism: Her expressed goal for a new performance concept “is to create an experience as relentless and addictive as possible.” And what of redemption, or at least a whiff of hope? They don’t figure in the concept of the film. For all its fancy style and philosophical posturing, “Vox Lux” wears its emptiness on its sleeve.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.