Review: Vox Lux (2018)

I usually just do quick reviews here, but no quick review could do ‘Vox Lux’ justice. Well, I suppose it could. I could use just two words: pretentious garbage. That’s it! That’s the review! However, that’s vague and unhelpful. The film has been running through my head now for a couple of days…did I miss something? Did the message fly over my head? Is it some genius masterpiece that I didn’t understand? Maybe…but maybe not.

“I don’t want people to have to think too hard. I just want them to feel good.”

Considering Natalie Portman’s performance was a major selling point of this movie, we don’t see Natalie Portman as the main character until halfway through the film. Up until then, we see the teenage version of her character Celeste…who is played by a younger actress, but is voiced by Portman! It creates a dissonance with the character, with the dubbing not 100% accurate and it notably being Portman’s voice. How can her words come out of a teenager’s mouth? It fascinated me for the duration of Celeste’s teenage years. What is the point of this? Why didn’t they just go the whole hog and de-age Portman with CGI? It creates an unnecessary distraction, as I kept asking myself if it was Portman doing the voice or not (and I’m still unsure!).

Outside of that dubious dubbing, the teenage years set up some intriguing questions/plot strands. There’s the juxtaposition between Celeste’s rise to fame and terrorism. The beginning of the film, sorry, Act 1: Genesis, sees Celeste a victim of a school shooting. As an opener, it’s chilling, effective, and downright unnerving. Celeste is shot, but she can still sing, and it’s her song (co-written with her sister) at a memorial for the victims that shoots her to super-stardom. We see her sexualised almost immediately (and she’s 14 years old, don’t forgot), asked to memorise dances that verge on the raunchy. Act 1 ends with Celeste finding out about 9/11 and her first music video, Hologram…(where she’s wrapped in latex, once again sexualised).

vox lux celeste daughter
Are we meant to assume that Celeste’s daughter was conceived on the eve of 9/11?

Act 2: Regenesis (it’s a made up word!) begins with yet another terror attack, this time a shooting on a beach in Croatia. The shooters were wearing the masks that were worn by Celeste and others in her music video ‘Hologram.’ In fact, the whole thing is filmed like a music video, in glamorous slow-motion. The two fictional terror attacks are meant to mirror two real life terror attacks. Act 1 takes place in 1999, the same year as the horrific Columbine terror attack. The beach shooting is reminiscent of the Tunisia terror attack in 2015. Celeste finds out about 9/11 the same morning she finds her manager (Jude Law doing yet another terrible American accent) in bed with her sister.

How are we meant to equate Celeste’s stardom with these terror attacks? Are they one and the same? Celeste muses on this “similarity” in an interview that turns nasty. The interviewer asks about the beach shootings. In Celeste’s point of view, giving attention to terrorists is giving them what they want: no attention, no terrorism. But then she reflects and says the same would happen to her and other famous people…no attention, no fame. It’s an intriguing parallel, one which the film both does and doesn’t elaborate on. Later, in a voiceover, it’s revealed that Celeste made a deal with the devil after being shot…the devil gave her life and superstardom. The devil said she would bring profound change to the 21st century.

“Shut your eyes and repeat after me. One for the money, two for the show. On three we get ready. And on four, come with me.”

Of course, the validity of this statement is questionable. It comes from the narration of Willem Dafoe, a narration that often interrupts the narrative and reveals little of substance. Just like Portman’s dubbing of her younger self, it’s a distraction, one that drowns out the on-screen action with perfunctory facts about Celeste’s life. In fact, the devil “revelation” is the only thing of substance Dafoe has to say. The viewer can infer much of what he rambles on about by watching the film closely. Once again, what is the point of his voiceover? After Celeste’s reaction to 9/11, Dafoe says her “loss of innocence curiously mirrored that of the nation.” I mean, that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? What is the point?

However, I thought “what’s the point” throughout much of the film. What does Celine’s concert, half an hour at least at the end of the film convey? There’s Dafoe’s voiceover, hammered into the middle of the concert. And I understand; Celeste is going through the motions, mouthing/singing along to the beat, dancing like a robot following a pre-programmed routine. But do we really need a full concert to appreciate that? I remember watching a live video of Britney Spears a few years back. It told the same story in four minutes (of course, it didn’t have the Dafoe voiceover!).

vox lux end concert

Nothing’s resolved, and perhaps that’s the point. And before this review ends, I’ll heap praise on Portman’s performance. She makes you wait for it, but when she appears, it’s such a jarring split from her teenage self. Portman is unlikeable, overbearing, and appears to constantly be performing (on the way to meet her daughter, she moves and stretches just like she would before a concert). She comes out with things like ‘I’ve got more hits than a 30 round AK-47 rifle.’ After an awkward press conference, she says to her manager “They wanted a show…I gave them a show.” If she’s always performing, then the people around her are the willing audience, pretending to be shocked at her words/actions yet indulging in them. Just like her work in ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Jackie,’ it’s a totally mesmerising performance.

But a mesmerising performance does not make up for an aimless, frustrating story. Faustian bargains and pop stardom have a potential to tell a blazing narrative, but this one barely tells any narrative at all in its second act. We see Celeste lurch from drink to drugs, from tears to tantrums, from a press conference to a concert, in hectic fashion. Perhaps that’s the point, but even so, it doesn’t make it any less of a slog to watch. I always judge a film on how eager I am to reach for my phone. In Act 2, I felt like reaching for my phone every five minutes. Maybe I missed something, maybe it went over my head. Or maybe Vox Lux was over-indulgent, pretentious garbage that covered old themes in second-hand clothes.

Hammy’s Rating: 2/5 A stunning performance by Portman is drowned out by pretentious garbage

What did you think of Vox Lux (2018)? Leave your thoughts/comments below!

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