Film Review | Vox Lux: Shine bright like a (blood) diamond

While its structure and tempo may be a bit wonky, Brady Corbet’s sophomore effort still makes for a darkly entrancing trip down the dark side of the modern pop star

The ascendant pop star film – biopic or otherwise – often follows as staid a formula as the most cookie-cutter of all Hollywood productions. From Bohemian Rhapsody to pretty much any other example of the sub-genre, we’re used to seeing how it all unfolds: humble beginnings, sudden ascent, conflict of values giving way to the inevitable fall before some kind of redeptive arc is allowed for our stage-hungry protagonists.

But the young actor-director Brady Corbet – having already perked interest with his adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story Childhood of a Leader back in 2016 – takes the path less travelled with Vox Lux, in which both Raffey Cassidy and latterly Natalie Portman star as the small town girl (Celeste Montgomery) turned pop starlet (Vox Lux), with the former then reprising the role as her daughter once we fast-forward from the end of the last century and into 2017.

Corbet’s film – he also penned the screenplay, having co-written the story with Mona Fastvold – takes place in a world that’s both fictional but queasily familiar. The opening sequence, ominously and tellingly taking place in 1999, is built on deliberately deployed echoes of the Columbine massacre – and sadly, many subsequent American high school shootings of its ilk – which Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) manages to survive, though not entirely unscathed.

Making her way to the stage in a neck brace in crutches together with her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin), the duo regale a commemorative vigil to her fallen fellow students with a song, which is captured by the cameras and goes on to attract no small amount of attention. Among those interested are a music industry manager (Jude Law), who whisks the siblings across the world for a recording-and-concert tour that will, of course, irrevocably change their lives.

Fast-forward a few years ahead, and ‘Vox Lux’ is a solo brand now, with Ellie being left on the wayside, practically serving as a full-time babysitter to her sister’s daughter Albertine (Cassidy, again). Already on the verge of becoming little more than an elder stateswoman in her genre – think latter-day Madonna and/or Lady Gaga – Vox Lux’s tour hits a snag after a terrorist group commits an atrocity while donning masks that clearly evoke her iconography, creating an uneasy media spiral that threatens to seriously clip her wings.

Operating on something of a fragmented pace that relies far too heavily on both Portman’s excellent performance to carry it through – along with Willem Defoe’s suave, wry narration – Corbet’s second attempt as a feature film is an inconsistent patchwork whose parts are certainly better than the whole.

Portman is a delight to watch, for a start. While the campy bombast that characterises a large part of what Corbet’s project is all about may not allow for much subtlety, here we get a rare instance of this classy, elegant actress hamming it up in her own way, and it’s a darkly amusing indulgence for all involved. By the same token, while its attempt at satirical resonance does feel slapdash, the scattered milestones of American atrocity – high school shooting, 9/11, media-friendly terrorist attack – make for a haunting collage when juxtaposed against the glitzy-but-grimy behind the scenes look into what goes on as Vox Lux preps a now-contentious final leg of a comeback tour.

Powered by original songs from Sia (with a surrounding score by Scott Walker) and some appropriately glossy cinematography courtesy of Lol Crawley, Vox Lux does not quite announce Corbet as a new glittering enfant terrible of American indie cinema. But in its notable moments – of which there are quite a few – there are hints that he may just get there some day.

The verdict

Though all-too-often operating on the riskier side of ambition and hampered by an archly precious tone that might come as an indulgence too far, Brady Corbet’s sophomore effort remains a beguiling and occasionally entrancing trip through the dark side of the contemporary pop star. And its inherent patchiness is more than expertly held together by Natalie Portman’s thrillingly realised performance of the nervy diva as absentee mother, giving us something to gawp at while the film unspools on its edgily energetic trajectory.

Vox Lux is screening at Spazju Kreattiv, Valletta on June 14, 25 and 28 at 7.30pm