TIFF Review: ‘VOX LUX’ sees Natalie Portman unleashed as a manic popstar

James Cole Clay // Film Critic

VOX LUX

Rated R, 112 minutes.
Director: Brady Corbet
Cast: Natalie PortmanChristopher AbbottRaffey CassidyJude LawJennifer Ehle and Willem Dafoe

Is pop poisonous music that sucks all the thought out of consumers’ brains, or is it a sweet escape for all those to enjoy and retreat from the horrors of the world?

Brady Corbet’s VOX LUX uses the pop world as a backdrop to tell the story of worldwide tragedy as it relates to the personal life of a music superstar. It’s confident work from Corbet (THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER), who collaborates with Natalie Portman for a scenery-chewing exercise that becomes more grating than satisfying. You could say this is a divisive movie, and its director won’t apologize for the brazen spectacle. Events are thrown out willy-nilly and without warning — you’d almost think there was a God complex at play.

The talk of this film is the bonkers performance by Portman, who returns to the same waters that landed her an Oscar for BLACK SWAN. She’s at her most unhinged playing a role that feels detached from the rest of the film. Being one of Hollywood’s most precious stars has given her every creative license to craft a character that’s thrown together without servicing the rest of the film. It’s admirable that movie stars gravitate towards unconventional film whose filmmakers allow them do their own thing. However, somebody should have told Corbet and Portman to pump the brakes a tad. It seems to be their intention to put Celeste (Portman) alone in a galaxy of her own making.

As we go through Celeste’s life we see her as she’s coping with catastrophe. During the first act three random acts of violence are depicted: a Columbine-esque shooter wreaking havoc over Celeste’s high school, the 9/11 attacks and a beach blanket massacre executed by radical terrorists, each affecting her life in different ways.

Celeste (Raffey Cassidy, playing a younger version of the character), becomes the sole survivor of a school shooting and is shaped by that violence. A young boy dressed in a black trench coat and eye makeup, wielding a machine gun, calmly guns down a teacher. Suddenly, amongst the terror, is Celeste, who is looking to reason with the shooter, and ultimately becomes the sole survivor. Celeste and her older sister Eleanor bond intensely during this time and begin writing music together.

Celeste and Eleanor get their start at pop stardom through a song they did about the massacre at a local press conference. Corbet is telegraphing the way media is looking to monetize tragedy and prey upon the sympathy’s of mourners. It’s a cynical viewpoint that quickly begins to affect Celeste for the rest of her life.

Natalie Portman stars in pop diva drama ‘VOX LUX.’ Courtesy photo.

Celeste and Eleanor are whisked away by an unnamed manager (Jude Law), who get them PR opportunities and show the sisters the “finer” things in life. Law is fine in the role when he’s allowed to be sleazy, competent and coke-snorting. It’s not quite the reunion from CLOSER we wanted, but it will have to do.

Eleanor goes on to work behind the scenes while her younger sister rises to fame. Cassidy is doing her best audition for a Terrence Malick film as she whispers whimsical ideas and waxes on about the state of her life as a burgeoning “artist.” She claims to a boy she meets, “I just want to make music that doesn’t cause people to think.” Cassidy is good in the role, it’s just disconnected by what Portman serves up in the second half.

VOX LUX does well is creating a goth-pop setting that evokes European cinema. With its 35mm cinematography from Lol Crawley unmasking a dingy and disturbing vibe, which is paired with Scott Walker’s haunting string score, it evokes arthouse horror. Corbet has technical skills in the bag. He appears to be a cinephile who borrows from those who’ve come before, but recontextualizes it for the 2018 artsy crowd.

Now, onto Natalie Portman. To be frank, her performance is completely disconnected from the rest of the film. We meet her Celeste as a 31-year-old mother of a teenage daughter (also Cassidy), who has fallen off the ledge after five or six albums and worldwide fame. She’s liable to fly off the handle at any turn. (Pro tip: Don’t ask Celeste for a selfie while she’s eating lunch.) Portman is really going for it, opting to use a distracting Staten Island accent that’s about as jarring as Michael Scott’s improv skills. Corbet takes us through Celeste’s preparation for her “comeback” tour, her interviews, her dodging paparazzi, her alone time with her daughter, and, of course, a cocaine break with her manager.

We don’t learn much about her in the closing half of the film. Corbet wants us to accept Celeste for who she is in all of her flawed glory. The problem is, that Portman’s performance is just plain obnoxious. She goes on blind rants about how her words are the world’s new religion. This ignorance wears out its welcome rather quickly.

Many musings are put to the test in VOX LUX, yet none of them dance to the same tune. It’s like going to a silent disco where you’re listening to ABBA, while your neighbor is jamming Lamb of God. This is a film with crazy ambition, to say the least. Corbet is an artist uninterested with being checked by the limits of working in Hollywood, yet his film landed one of the industry’s most prestigious stars.

With results like this, why even change?

[Grade: B-]

VOX LUX premiered on Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. The Toronto International Film Festival will have encore screenings on 9/10 and 9/13 (P&I screening). Visit tiff.net for more details on the showtimes. VOX LUX has no U.S. release date at this time. Will keep you posted.

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