Vox Lux


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 Spoiler warning: this article reveals key plot developments

After his directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader (2015), former child actor Brady Corbet (Thirteen, dir. Catherine Hardwicke, 2003; Mysterious Skin, dir. Gregg Araki, 2004) comes back with yet another story of an innocent child whose surroundings lead them onto a wrong path. Same as with Corbet’s previous protagonist (portrayed by Tom Sweet and Robert Pattinson), historical events are presented as a background to Vox Lux’s Celeste’s experiences (played by Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman); this time instead of the First World War, they consist of mass shootings and 9/11. It is nothing less than a critical tale of our times; the era of fake news, destructive capitalism, corruption, painful lack of privacy and an inability to disconnect from the world to step back and think for ourselves. 

The film, narrated by Willem Dafoe, begins with a dramatic monologue about Celeste’s childhood. However, at times, like in the case of the fun and quirky Stockholm montage, Dafoe’s serious, documentary-like voice resembles Richard McGonagle’s narration style from 500 Days of Summer (Dir. Marc Webb, 2009). It mirrors our own world, in which we often get distracted from important events by cute cat videos on social media. Corbet’s narrative lacks linearity, leaving a sixteen-year gap between the film’s two chapters. Even though, as the director himself admits, it is ‘brutal to play with time like that’, it was done in an effort to avoid a ‘boring viewing experience’ that would give out all the answers too easily.[1] We should be flattered – Corbet assumes his audiences to be smart and able to figure things out for themselves.[2] 

Celeste, Corbet’s ‘avatar for America’, is a complicated character: a teenage terror attack survivor, whose grief was taken and used as a money-making machine.[3] By 2017 there is nothing left of the sweet, innocent girl America used to love and worship and, as Portman takes over from Cassidy, Celeste turns into a drug and alcohol dependent woman with, presumably, untreated PTSD, whose angry outbursts and often difficult behaviour turn the American public against her. Even her own family are scared, not only for her, but, at times, of her. One cannot help but see parallels with celebrities such as Whitney Houston or Britney Spears. Their mental health and addiction issues caused by fame, lack of privacy and, let’s be honest, being treated by some merely as a way to make a fortune, lead to the once beloved stars being ridiculed and harshly scrutinised, all to the entertainment of the masses. Nobody takes responsibility for their downfall or sees a human being in desperate need for help and privacy – as long as we have someone whose messy and troubled life makes us feel better about ourselves, we’re good. We’ll shed a tear or two for them later, most likely when it’s too late anyway.

Back in her teenage years, Celeste is tortured by a reoccurring dream – the seemingly never-ending tunnel where she discovers a lifeless body that turns out to be her. She is not scared of dying because, as she explains, she knows she will never do. It is, in fact, the same tunnel as from her video ‘Hologram’ video – and that is roughly when, I believe, she started to be seen by others precisely as the ‘lifeless body’ from her dream; she’s not a person anymore – she’s a product that can be easily used to the advantage of others. And the tunnel really does seem to never end – be it yet another quick snap taken by a paparazzi or a fan, another detail from her life put out on display for the world to prey on, or even another forced apology for something she had nothing to do with (an act of terrorism carried out in Croatia in this case). Her life no longer belongs to her, therefore Celeste, the icon, the persona, will indeed never die. Or does she mean the consequences of her deal with the metaphorical Devil? One can but wonder.

Once upon a time, she used to write her own lyrics and, as Dafoe announces at the very beginning, ‘no one can take that away from her’. Even though she does try to preserve her original identity, coating herself in a ‘shield of authenticity’ taking the form of an over-exaggerated Staten Island accent, that Celeste is forever gone.[4] The lyrics - all co-written by Sia - and the aesthetics of Celeste’s final performance are not to be ignored. As the words ‘baby avec cash’, ‘sex’, ‘desire’ and ‘regret’ flash in and out the huge screen behind Portman, we hear her sing that she’s a ‘damaged dollar’ (‘Blinded by Love’), that she crumbles ‘like the Berlin Wall’ (‘Wrapped Up’) and that she’s a ‘private girl in a public world’ (‘Private Girl’) – this can surely be seen as a criticism of the times we live in, filled with cheap and easy pleasures and celebrity gossip which make us forget, or simply ignore, the bigger picture.

As Celeste seems to believe, we are only relevant as long as we continue to speak, regardless if what we say is meaningful or even true; in the post-truth era these are but insignificant details. Vox Lux – which could be translated from Latin as ‘voice of light’ or ‘enlightening voice’ – is what we all seem to need now more than ever but would we even listen? The ‘Devil’ does not like being disappointed, after all. 

‘One for the money

Two for the show

On three we get ready

And on four come with me’

 

Alicja Tokarska

freelance translator and writer

April 2019

 

 


[1] Max Cea, ‘Vox Lux’s Director Wants to Tell the Story of Our Generation’, GQ, https://www.gq.com/story/vox-luxs-director-wants-to-tell-the-story-of-our-generation

[2] ‘Natalie Portman talks about playing a pop star in Vox Lux. TIFF 2018’, Los Angeles Times, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eD3OqnnD4g

[3] Charles Bramesco, ‘Natalie Portman on Not Reading Her Press – and That Vox Lux Accent’, Vulture, https://www.vulture.com/2018/12/natalie-portman-vox-lux-interview.html

[4] Bramesco


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