It’s fair to say that the last six or so months has well and truly spoilt us when it comes to musical based, female centric rise and fall type film narratives. We got something relatively traditional in the form of the fourth version of A Star Is Born, something more rustic and raw in the form of Wild Rose, and now we have Vox Lux, a picture with all suggestions pointing towards following a similar vein, albeit with a much wilder, more eclectic and experimental vibe.
The film tells the story Celeste (played in teenhood by Raffey Cassidy and adulthood by Natalie Portman), the survivor or a high school shooting whose who rises to international pop superstardom when she is discovered after singing at a memorial for her murdered classmates. Split in to two time periods in Celeste’s life, the film covers the initial discovery and early rise, before sending viewers straight to the messy later years, leaving us to put together the pieces of the up and downs of the singer’s career.
The first thing to say is that this is not a happy film, but it is certainly a captivating one. Given the tragic circumstances of the protagonist’s early life, even the moments of discovery and uncovering talent are robbed of that usual cinematic joy because of the layer of sadness that permeates absolutely every aspect of the plot. From suffering a massive spinal trauma in the shooting to going through a teenage pregnancy to falling in to many of vice ridden traps of young onset stardom, Celeste’s life is a pretty much a grade A mess, and the interesting dynamic that the film creates is in showcasing these problematic traits in a pop star that that world has chosen to adopt as a symbol of strength and resilience and survival.
From beginning the story with a Columbine style atrocity to ending it in current day amidst the aftermath of a terrorist attack closely linked to Celeste, the story weaves a really interesting and poignant thread that places an unescapable weight on the protagonist’s shoulders. This weight is put at fascinatingly direct odds with the music that the story produces, genuinely great pop songs penned by none other than Sia. It’s certainly a rise and fall pop star movie the likes of which I have never seen before, and even if you don’t necessarily enjoy it, there is something about it that demands your attention and forces you to enter in to Celeste’s messy world.
The tone of Vox Lux and the incredibly dark themes and questions posed is something that I really enjoy in a sombre, melancholy way, but there is one particular aspect of the film that turns me off. It’s a bold filmmaking choice, but the move to have the same actress play both teenage Celeste in the first half and then Celeste’s own teenage daughter in the second half isn’t one that I like at all. The metaphorical parallels between the two characters are clear to see, but making the comparison quite so literal feels a tiny bit cheap and pointless in the grand scheme of things.
Together, Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman do a really great job of coming together to embody one single character at different points in her life. Moving from a young Celeste to a mid thirties Celeste doesn’t feel jarring for the audience at all, but there is no doubting that the film really comes to life when the more experienced, more charismatic Portman takes the reins. Portman is one of those actresses that I love in everything, regardless of the quality of the film, and as the older, damaged, demon filled Celeste she evokes the some kinds of fragility and intensity that have been displayed in previous powerhouse performances in the likes of Black Swan and Jackie. There are a lot of moving parts to this character, and Portman keeps them well oiled and working together perfectly.
As I alluded to above, Raffey Cassidy is tasked with playing both the young Celeste and then Celeste’s teen daughter Albertine. It’s not a choice that I necessarily liked, but there is no arguing that Cassidy performs the dual role really effectively. The two characters might look identical, but their sensibilities are worlds apart.
Jude Law and Stacy Martin play two of the most significant supporting roles in the piece, the former as Celeste’s older, at times problematic manager and the latter as her loyal but browbeaten sister. Law succeeds in evoking that initial air of trustworthiness before showing glimpses of his truer, seedier character, and Martin’s performance as Ellie, the sister who it is hinted has the bigger, better talent provides one of the more interesting personal angles in the film. Martin plays her character in both the teenage scenes and the present day scenes, which again adds a somewhat confusing and immersion breaking element seeing as her sister has transformed from a girl in to a full grown woman in the same amount of time. It’s just another reference to some of those casting decisions that I found to be distracting from the genuine intrigue and drama of the narrative.
Overall, Vox Lux is a peculiar, very different kind of movie, but it’s definitely one that I liked very much. It is a film filled with pain, both emotional and physical, but there is something undeniably watchable about it. Setting aside my own gripes with the nature of some double casting etc., I have to say it is extremely affecting and is probably going to stay with me for a very long time. It possesses a cold but cool aesthetic that matches its themes perfectly. Not to mention, of course, the fact that you get the double delight of a really challenging, unusual drama that happens to have an absolutely killer original soundtrack. Sia knows what she’s doing, yo.