Monday, July 22, 2024

Second Chance Sundays: ‘Vox Lux’

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We’re in a weird place right now both personally and industry-wise. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended almost every system by revealing flaws and cracks we either knew existed or had stubbornly ignored.  While many of us face quarantine it has become a time of reflection and in the case of film critics a time to get creative while Hollywood decides how to proceed.

So here at The Fandomentals we present Second Chance Sundays and Whatever Wednesdays.  On Second Chance Sundays I will take a movie previously reviewed and take another crack at it. I’ll be looking at movies I loved, hated, or just felt meh about. I think Whatever Wednesdays speak for themselves. This only temporary until everything settles down somewhat.

Last week I said I’d be reviewing Man Of Steel. It wasn’t until later that I realized I had never reviewed MOS. Since the purpose of “Second Chance Sundays” is to reevaluate movies I’ve reviewed, this meant MOS was ineligible.  So I moved MOS over to “Whatever Wednesdays” and chose Vox Lux instead.

Vox Lux is one of those movies in which you either go with it or you don’t. In my initial review, I raved about it and said though I found it the movie offputting at times, I loved every minute of it because of its moxie. 

Brady Corbet’s film is still as intense and jarring as when I first saw in in theatres. Though I wasn’t in the mood for Vox Lux upon the re-watch (with everything going on I much prefer Deep Space Nine than wild erratic cinema) I found myself falling in love all over again.

Corbet brews a heady concoction of raw realism mixed with the bombastic and the surreal. Vox Lux vacillates between moralizing, humanizing, deconstructing, and just plain weird. Corbet’s script plays like a dark fable told by an old man sitting by the fire trying to warn his audience as the storm outside rages on. Fitting then that the narration is done by Willen Dafoe. 

Dafoe’s voice has a soothing authoritative cadence perfect for the narrative framing device. He speaks so matter of factly, but with an undercurrent of mischief, it’s easy to imagine him smirking as he reads his lines. Speaking of Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), “In the beginning, she was kind and full of grace, and at least she wrote her own lyrics. No one could take that away from her.”

It helps that part of Corbet’s aim is satire, somewhat. The satire is inconclusive because along the way he drops satire and imbues social commentary into the whole ordeal and almost loses the thread. Yet, despite all of this Vox Lux is alive with wild manic energy matched only by its actors.

The narrative of Vox Lux is structured like a play with the film being broken into acts. A title card will appear and read ACT I: Genesis and so on. But while the narrative behaves as if inspired by Ibsen, in how reserved and muted the atmosphere is, the emotional beats and style of the film are cinematic with sharp angles, and a steady camera as it glides down the highway atop a screeching ambulance as an orchestra blares its symphony at us. Subtle it is not.

Cassidy’s Celeste will survive a school shooting, become a pop star, and then reach stratospheric levels of fame, she will be quite simply a legend. Grown-up Celeste is played by Natalie Portman who is erratic as she is kinetic. Celeste can’t, or won’t stop moving, even when she comes to a standstill. The only time she is at peace is when she is on stage in front of her adoring fans.

Yet, we get the sense her peace comes not from her adoring fans, but from the fact that onstage is the only place she is left alone. Among the many things Vox Lux touches on is our obsession with celebrities, what it does to us, and what it does to the celebrity. Celeste is in a constant state of flux, primarily because her fans demand it, as does the market. A victim of capitalism and obsessive adoration, inner peace and happiness are not things she can afford.

At the very end of Vox Lux we learn a vital piece of information just before the final musical number-and then the film abruptly ends. We learn that when young Celeste was shot, she died briefly, and in that interim-made a deal with the devil to live. Celeste didn’t go to hell, far from it, she was in limbo. The devil let her live and whispered his melodies into her ear.

I said Vox Lux seemed like a fable and with Dafoe’s reveal, in the end, it seems almost jarring and out of place. For as much of a fable as the film has been, or seemed, it has never quite soared into the stratosphere of the supernatural. On the re-watch, though it does give voice to the eeriness rumbling underneath the surface.

Knowing that as I re-watched Vox Lux only made me see how brilliant both Cassidy and Portman’s performances actually are. Their unease makes more sense now, not that it didn’t the first time through, but Cassidy’s Celeste seems to remember the event fully as she seems always reserved and helps us understand where the confidence comes from. Portman’s Celeste seems to be uneasy, possibly convinced, that her good fortune comes at a price. Or possibly she seems to headstrong because she knows what she’s paid for this life and refuses to give it up or waste a second of it sitting around moping. 

Cassidy also plays Celeste’s daughter Albertine. I raved about Portman’s performance in my original review, and my praises till stand. She goes for broke, picks up the broken furniture, and smashes them against the wall. This isn’t a performance it’s damn near an exorcism. But Cassidy, both as the young Celeste, and as Albertine is miraculous as she somehow captures a young Portman while also capturing something all her own as her daughter.

Lol Crawley’s camerawork combined with Matthew Hannam’s editing makes Vox Lux a feverish roaring declaration, of what I’m still at a loss, to say. But, the second time around I was struck how catchy and eerily melodic quality of Celeste’s music. The pop artist Sia worked with Scott Walker to create pop songs that sound like actual chart-toppers.

Too often in movies about musicians, the songs are forgettable or atonal. Say what you will about Vox Lux but Celeste’s songs sound like something you’d hear on the radio. Her stage show seems like something Lady Gaga would do. Portman and Cassidy’s performance seal all of this because they show the growth of an artist, something we all are familiar with.

Corbet’s aesthetic makes Vox Lux both an invigorating and at times unpleasant experience. The shooting at the school is framed and given to us in a mixture of an Errol Morris documentary, blending the real with the stylish. The lone gunman stalking down a deserted road at night with synth-pop pulsating through the scene. But when the time comes there is no music and the teacher and the students behave and talk like real people. The shooting is presented as straightforward as possible to avoid the appearance of exploitation.

Vox Lux is fueled by a cornucopia of emotions. Anger, joy, sadness, and grief all swirl together as Celeste seems to spiral out of control. Even her manager played by Jude Law, who seems at times to be helpful while at others seems to be the worst influence on her life, can’t help but stand in awe. Law’s performance as the swaggering no-nonsense world-weary manager is magnetic but gets lost in Portman and Cassidy’s shadow.

Large swaths of the story are left unexplained. Much like Personal Shopper the scenes never end where we have been conditioned to expect them to end. Instead, the scenes flow with their own chaotic rhythm yanking us from moment to moment by our shirt collars, never allowing us to get settled or feel comfortable. 

Part of my admiration for Vox Lux comes from how it dares you not to like it. Most films try to act ambivalent but do so because they understand we tend to like films that don’t care what we think. But few films go out of their way to actively dare us to hate them quite like Vox Lux. Fewer still have such sweet hooks and danceable beats as well. 

Maybe that’s why I love it, it’s a musical without being a musical and as such encourages over the top performances, emotions, and styles. Portman’s Celeste is a vivid trainwreck the likes of which were made for Reality television. I dunno, I think I like it more than I did the first time. 

All I know is that while I probably wouldn’t want to watch Vox Lux on a sunny afternoon, I’d love to talk about it. 

Image courtesy of Neon

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