Another movie about would-be celebrity self-immolation? We’ve got Showgirls (1996), Mulholland Drive (2001), and many others besides. If you take 2018’s Vox Lux to be a tale of the entertainment system and its discontents, you could be forgiven for disliking the film. Natalie Portman’s Staten Island accent leaves something to be desired (I should know; I’ve got two siblings raised there). The story’s beats are nothing new: sleep with your manager, get addicted to pills, feel the slow metamorphosis from innocent suburban teen to wailing banshee-superstar. The whole Sister Carrie (1900) thing. Or, you know, just follow the news about Britney Spears or Macaulay Culkin.
Luckily, Vox Lux is only partially a movie about one woman’s rise to the top and the internal meltdown that tails her success. It is a really film about a system of interlinking parts that produce, maintain, and vampirize the human beings behind celebrities, the detritus of human persons parasitized by fama. The movie makes you feel the walls closing in not only on Portman’s character but on us all. Pop music is life; pop music is death.
This Brady Corbet joint is composed of three acts: Genesis, Regenesis, and a finale. The first charts the rise of Celester (Raffey Cassidy), a girl from Staten Island who becomes famous after she and her sister perform a song after a horrific tragedy at their school. Here we get the typical indicators of a celebrity’s rise: a loss of innocence, grandiose, silly ambitions, and a tenderness that invites us to like Celeste. Part Two has Natalie Portman play the Celeste character while Cassidy portrays her daughter, Albertine. Now, she is older, drunker, and attempting a comeback after a multitude of mishaps, accidents, and general catastrophes for which she is, of course, not responsible. The finale is a show in her hometown, one she’s spent much of the second half of the movie preparing for.
The film is elevated by Scott Walker’s score. Walker was himself a popstar turned avant-garde musician and recluse. He understood the material. And so, when Celeste first goes to New York to pursue a record contract, director Brady Corbet presents us with shots of looming buildings in New York City, awful steel skyscrapers that look like alien idols, all undergirded by Walker’s droning, terrifying score. The environment itself presages Celeste’s future. More than that, however, it confesses a horror, the horror of life today for all. No one in this movie seems happy. Sure, Celeste’s family has a suburban charm. But her school is massacred. The city is a monster. Her fans, as we shall see, are idiots.
The finale show often consists of wide shots. We can see not only Celeste lip-synching generic pop songs but also her fans losing themselves in the music. Behind the popstar screens flash with single words straight out of They Live (1988). Now, however, consumeristic slogans are all on the surface. No need for glasses or any other such bit. Everything is explosive, colorful, and energetic but without any real meaning or force. Celeste is pleasing her fans. She has come back. But to what end? Perhaps her career can be saved. But can we? Can any of us? Can any real people survive?
The most obvious parallel between pop culture and death occurs when a group of gunmen massacre tourists at a resort in Croatia. They wear masks from an early Celeste music video. Much is made of what could be meant by this: do they hate women? Do they hate decadent Western culture? Is it some kind of joke?
Early on after she has sex with an older metal musician, Celeste lies next to him, pouring out her yet-innocent heart. She declares that she wants to make music that helps people feel good, not that invites them to think too much. In this, she succeeds. But at what cost to her? And, more provocatively, at what cost to us all?