In space, stars find their way into existence by way of interstellar molecular clouds at a temperature of just above absolute zero. That’s seriously cold.
In “Vox Lux,” the narcissistic human star at the center of writer-director Brady Corbet’s film thrives, however recklessly, at a similar temperature. Natalie Portman plays the pop diva, Celeste, with such witty relish, her coldness becomes a tonic. The character may be hollow celebrity incarnate, but Portman dives right in, returning from the depths of a flamboyantly trashed portrayal saying, in effect: C’mon in! The water’s fine.
“Vox Lux” is the sardonic yang to the sincere, heart-yanking yin of this season’s big awards fave, “A Star is Born.” It’s framed as a dark fairy tale, narrated in cool, measured tones by Willem Dafoe. Corbet begins in 1999, with a (fictional) Staten Island, N.Y., school shooting. (This was the year of the real-life Columbine massacre.) Young Celeste, played by Raffey Cassidy, survives a bullet to the throat, while all around her schoolroom, others die. At the memorial service, the seriously injured Celeste sings a ballad, cowritten with her sister (Stacy Martin), as a coping mechanism. The song goes viral. Celeste’s star rises.
Much of the first half of “Vox Lux” unspools as a black comedy about fame and other forms of terrorism in America. Celeste, her sister and their mother get busy with Celeste, Incorporated. Celeste’s personae remain in perpetual shuffle mode, out-Madonna-ing Madonna. In 2001 the World Trade Center towers fall, which changes everything and nothing. Celeste gets pregnant from a one-night stand, while her ever-lurking, string-pulling manager (Jude Law) keeps his client on track and profitable.
Corbet then jumps to 2017, at which point Portman seizes the role of Celeste. Cassidy now plays her daughter, and their extended, forlornly funny conversations become the through-line for “Vox Lux.” Corbet’s atmospheric sense is very strong in this, his second feature: The direction’s fleet-footed and excitingly up for anything. So is Portman. With this picture, alongside her turns in “Black Swan” and “Jackie,” she becomes the patron saint of celebrity burdens and the determination to endure. Celeste has traded one heinous form of notoriety for another kind. “Vox Lux” fabulizes that transformation.
As for who’s really in there, under the skin of this boozy, needy, extravagantly self-inflicting wound of a woman — that’s never really answered. Corbet has no time for conventional psychology and nuance. He’s a sensationalist, primarily. But he knows how to move a camera, and while it may be thin, his movie is never less than engrossing in its strangeness.
MPAA rating: R (for language, some strong violence, and drug content)
Running time: 1:50
©2018 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194):
Copyright 2018 Tribune Content Agency.