The riskiest gamble of Vox Lux: “A 21st Century Portrait” is that it looks and sounds like a mainstream movie with wide appeal when it is, in reality, a purposefully divisive work meant to enrage & alienate. Featuring an Oscar reel-worthy performance from Natalie Portman (in full Black Swan mode) and arriving just in time to make that PR push happen, the film masquerades as a must-see Important Drama friendly to mainstream discussion in wide release. It’s the most flagrantly misrepresented film in that vein I’ve seen since mother!, however, and it’s sure too piss off just as many onlookers unprepared for the cold, mean, absurdist melodrama that awaits them. The funniest thing about that gamble is that this is a film about marketing and public perception. It’s about a pop culture artist who has a hostile relationship with the public, so it’s already sneering in the general direction of its inevitable detractors. It’s brutal and coldly funny like a Yorgos Lanthimos film, yet it’s absurdly earnest like a Mommie Dearest melodrama. It’s a distanced philosophical statement on the current shape of Western culture, but also a gleefully perverse, intimate portrait of a woman behaving monstrously. There’s no way to properly market a work that tonally volatile to a mass audience, so the film is going to be paraded around like an Oscar Season drama when it’s actually something much weirder and more deeply sinister. It’s a Trojan horse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a concealed weapon; it’s a film I admired on its own merits, but also look forward to seeing it being met with hostile negativity.
Vox Lux’s cheeky air of self-importance extends beyond its festival circuit & Oscar Season release strategy. Its self-appointed intent to function as a “21st Century Portrait” is not only a reference to its depiction of a pop star’s rise from teenage darling to thirty-something monster, but also its cold, detached commentary on the modern world at large. A bitterly sarcastic antidote to the earnest, vulnerable pontification of 20th Century Women, the film is relayed through the dry, humorously overwritten narration of Willem Dafoe, who acts as our godlike tour guide of the last 20 years of terrorist violence & pop culture rot (and finding those two forces grotesquely symbiotic). Portman’s central character, Celeste, is a kind of cipher for this cultural commentary. A permanently scarred victim of domestic terrorism as a teenager, Celeste turns a personal tragedy into a hit song to achieve instantaneous fame, so that the film can comment directly on how horrific violence is marketed for easy profit. The pop music machinery of this divide is anchored by an original soundtrack of Sia compositions, performed by “Celeste.” The menacing violence of the world it exploits & mismarkets is represented in contrast by a horrifyingly minimalist score from Scott Walker, approximating his best 21st Century mutation of John Carpenter. That internal musical conflict matches the other binary confrontations represented throughout: pop vs. metal, terrorism vs. Public Relations, “real art” vs. “having an angle.” By the time the film reaches its climatic Celeste concert and all that’s left is the conflict between Sia’s songs & Dafoe’s narration, the clearest binary at play is Good Vs. Evil. Like mother!, Vox Lux is a divisive, gleefully unsubtle work that gets outright Biblical in its internal, philosophical conflicts. It dares you to hate it, then asks for forgiveness. It spits in your face, then blows you a kiss.
All that thematic discussion is just me intellectualizing the real reason I enjoyed this film: it’s fun to watch women misbehave, unconcerned with whether or not you like them. Celeste starts the film as a relatively normal teenager (played by Raffey Cassidy), but the circumstances of her rise to fame and 24/7 pampering transform her into a monstrous, irredeemable brat. Portman has way too much fun going over-the-top as a power-hungry villain in the role, chewing scenery with an exaggerated Staten Island accent and an addict’s insatiable desire for more, more, more. She admits her latest album cycle’s “sci-fi anthems” are creatively bankrupt in one breath, then claims she is a literal god in the next. She pretends to be a thick-skinned badass in a leather jacket, but crumbles at any mention of her glaring, public faults – a vulnerability visually represented by the decorative neck guards he uses to conceal the wounds from her teen-years tragedy. A lesser film would portray Celeste as a victim of her circumstances, a product of an abusive, exploitative culture and frustrated expression of mass violence. Vox Lux refuses to let her off the hook so easily, instead allowing her the space to alienate & enrage with a comically escalating set of temper tantrums and demands for attentive admiration. Even her one saving grace as an artist, the frequent defense that “at least she writes her own lyrics,” is demonstrated to be a vicious lie, as she constantly takes credit for loved ones’ work and then bullies them into silence. The concluding minutes of concert footage that gloss over all that backstage misery with a pure-fantasy pop star sheen only make her monstrous behavior more horrific in contrast: yet another internal conflict meant to sit queasily on the viewer’s stomach.
I don’t expect universal backup for my love of Vox Lux, nor do I really want it. Just like how the movie is perversely fun in its uncompromising depictions of a woman’s monstrous behavior, I suspect some of my enjoyment of it as a final product is its built-in divisiveness. There were several walkouts at our New Orleans Film Festival screening of the picture, and even the audience who remained to squirm in their seats weren’t sure what to do with the film’s cold brutality & absurd melodrama humor. You either revel in that discomfort or you dismiss the film as a failure, and I very much look forward to seeing the most polarized reactions in that binary divide. My favorite kinds of movies are the ones where I look forward to reading their most fiercely negative reviews; that’s not something I’m used to getting out of an Oscar Season prestige release, so I find this instance especially exciting.