Vox Lux: God Is a Woman, by Josh Long
The transition from actor to director isn’t always a smooth one but Brady Corbet is making that move quietly and deftly. His debut feature, 2015’s haunting The Childhood of a Leader flew under the radar for most moviegoers, but was recognized at the Venice Film Festival and the Independent Spirit Awards. For his second feature, he’s got more money and bigger stars to play with. This dark and emotional drama shows that he knows how to work with both, and to craft a compelling story in the meantime.
Vox Lux begins with a fictional school shooting in the year 2000. Fourteen year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) miraculously survives the ordeal, even though she’s been shot in the throat. At a memorial service following the tragedy, Celeste feels she can best express her feelings over the situation in song. She writes the music and performs with the help of her sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin). Her song is caught on news cameras, and captures the attention of the nation. Before they even know what’s happening, the girls are whisked off to New York City to record a demo for Celeste. She meets success everywhere she turns, and soon she’s recording albums and shooting music videos in LA.
We then flash forward to find Celeste eighteen years older (now played by Natalie Portman) and on the eve of a massive Taylor Swift-scale comeback concert. It becomes clear that fame and the years have not been kind to Celeste, as we examine her attitude towards her fans and the press, her drug problems, and her broken relationships with her sister and daughter Albertine (Raffey Cassidy again). Can she still dazzle an audience amidst the mounting pressures of her life?
It is important to note that Corbet’s full title for his film is Vox Lux: A 21st Century Portrait. On the surface, the film could simply be about a pop star with a troubled past. But this title helps us to recontextualize the film and see that there are deeper things at play here. Celeste’s life is an amalgamation of many of the negative things that have become prevalent in the United States of the 21st century. She is plagued by violence, specifically school shootings. She becomes a celebrity much too early (a la Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato – take your pick), and it both robs her of a childhood and tempts her into a life of excess that fosters addiction and keeps her from any real happiness. She goes off-book at a press conference and, in the era of the sound bite, does more harm than good for her image. These things are not unique to our time, but they undoubtedly loom large in the eye of the 21st century American.
But perhaps there’s an even deeper level. Perhaps Celeste herself is a stand-in for the United States since the year 2000. She begins the story (the millennium) with a horrifying tragedy, echoing the September 11th attacks. It hurts her deeply, in a way she never fully realizes, even though she makes social (political?) gains out of it. By 2018, she has become loud, brash, and demanding. Even though she uses her celebrity’s voice to speak out against violence (even terrorism, specifically), we learn that she excuses her own violent actions, having injured a motorist while driving impaired. She is proud to stand as a sex symbol – and becomes pregnant at a very young age – but hypocritically becomes furious when she finds out her daughter is sexually active. She even goes from being religious as a girl, to proclaiming at a press conference that she gave up believing in God to believe in her. Belief in her own success, her own capabilities, her own power, has superseded belief in anything bigger.
The tragedy, her hypocritical attitudes towards violence and sex, and her rejection of religion for protectionist self-worship all mirror America’s path since 9/11. Yet the film isn’t content to simply throw Celeste to the wolves as a failure and a blight on the world. She (like the United States) still has something to give to the world – she still can perform, can help people even if she’s deeply broken on the inside. And at heart, she’s still trying to pick up the pieces after tragedy changed her forever. There’s no going back, but there are relationships that can be mended, paths that can be redirected, and her power in the world will, if she chooses, allow her the chance to do good.
Corbet’s ominous yet loving look at 21st century America is timely, poetic, and compelling. Great performances and a portentous score by Scott Walker bolster a thoughtful story. Another strong entry in what is shaping up to be a very good movie year.