Vox Lux (2018) by Brady Corbet
Review by Andrew Swafford
After spending much of my summer researching mass shootings for my video essay on gun violence in horror movies, I made a point of buying tickets for three movies that were at least tangentially related to the subject: Paul Greengrass’s 22 July, David Gordon Green’s Halloween, and Bracy Corbet’s Vox Lux. None of them came close to being the revelation I call for at the end of the video essay, but this was easily the one that got on my nerves the most.
Vox Lux is about a young girl named Celeste who survives a school shooting, rising to national visibility to ultimately stake out a career as a pop idol (complete with original songs by Sia). It started promising, with a school shooting scene that felt appropriately horrifying (partially because it follows the first rule outlined in my video, “gunshots are only scares if they’re surprises”), and I was on the film’s wavelength until it really showed its hand: this is a story about a social climber. Celeste’s story is told in two chapters; in the first half of the film, she’s a teenager played by Raffey Cassidy, and in part two she’s a celebrity played by Natalie Portman--but in both parts, she’s evil. As someone who is particularly concerned about the fatality and trauma of school shootings, I was inclined to sympathy toward Celeste in the early stages, but I soon realized the film did not want me to feel this way. (After all, this is coming from the guy who made the movie about young Hitler being--surprise!--a very naughty boy.)
The way Celeste barters for her life in the opening scene is a deal with the devil, and every subsequent one involves her weaponizing her high-profile victimhood for personal gain--there’s no trauma to wrestle with, apparently, when there’s money to be made and fame to be sought. We’re meant to see her music as vapid, thoughtless commercialism, and Brady Corbet saps away any potential that pop music has for the effervescent by only playing Sia’s original compositions diegetically, sabotaging the sound with bad acoustics and intrusive room noise. (Perhaps it goes without saying that Corbet takes a rockist’s perspective on what is surely one of the most exciting genres of music right now.) In keeping with the supposed emptiness of her music, Celeste’s selfish and debaucherous life choices are often played in fast-forward montage, as portentous narration from none other than Willem Dafoe invites the harshest possible judgement on Celeste’s character. By the time Natalie Portman takes over acting duty as a swaggering, squawking fool, any hope of empathy (for someone who might otherwise rightly be an exploited victim) is long gone. What’s more, the narrative tracks of her journey are lain across a broader arc of modern American history, from Columbine to 9/11 to the election of Donald Trump, using her supposed “loss of innocence” as a blunt instrument with which to pummel American decadence and celebrity-worship. When the final credits roll on Vox Lux, the film is revealed to have a subtitle: “An American Portrait,” which is all the confirmation I need that Corbet doesn’t really give a shit about people at all--he’d rather appropriate their tragedies for his own fakedeep “America bad” allegory.
Corbet doesn’t do himself any favors by, in that same credits sequence, dedicating the film to the late Jonathan Demme, whose generosity and humanity makes Corbet look downright sociopathic by comparison--and who could shoot a live concert considerably better too, I might add. And I shouldn’t knock Corbet’s movie for it’s release date, but upon leaving the theater, I couldn’t help but remark upon the fact that the world premiere of Vox Lux occured on the same day that GKIDS re-released Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, a far superior film about about a vulnerable, dissociative popstar deconstructed and reconstructed by the mass media machine. (It’s also the second time Natalie Portman has, knowingly or unknowingly, placed herself in the center of a movie indebted to Kon.) Satoshi Kon has enough sense to know that these systems take advantage of the vulnerable, and aren’t taken advantage of by them.
Perhaps this is yet another quintessentially millennial incidence of my snowflakier tendencies getting in the way of my appreciating edgy art, but I just can’t get over what Corbet implies here about highly visible survivors of national tragedy. Michael Moore brought David Hogg to TIFF the night before Vox Lux premiered--if I had time to stick around for Corbet’s Q&A, I like to think I would have found the courage to ask: do you think David Hogg is a social climber, Brady Corbet?