It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the 75th Venice International Film Festival (29 August – 8 September), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Milo Garner reviews Brady Corbet’s extravagant exploration of stardom.
Vox Lux is a grandiose film. Its relatively prosaic story is elevated to ludicrous heights by orchestral flourishes, associative montage, and three acts on title cards. Even the title is soaked in prestige, the Latin for ‘voice’ and ‘light’. The protagonist (Natalie Portman) is named Celeste – heavenly. Accusations of artifice might seem appropriate, and they are. Corbet thrives in it, and more, has made a film about artifice. The pop music centre of Vox Lux is not incidental, but rather its direct subject. A Star Is Born took on a similar subject, and the result was tasteless – an empty shell, comment replaced by sentiment. Corbet, however, unpacks fame and those caught in its beam, insight hid between each provocative flash.
The film opens in 1999, in a manner that might be unexpected for a rise-and-fall music film – a school shooting. The scene initially serves as a kind of origin story for its Miley Cyrus type protagonist, but becomes far more incisive as the film goes on. The shooter introduces himself as he enters the classroom, and then does so again. His act requires exposure – he must be known. Without the fame, infame, whatever it might be known as, everything he has done becomes nothing. And it is a circular pattern – the media stokes interest in heinous acts to generate attention and profit, leading others to follow the same path. It is little different to pop stardom, Corbet supposes, a feedback loop of attention for which genuine substance becomes an afterthought.
This is taken further in a new event that instigates the second act: a terrorist attack using iconography taken from a Celeste music video. It is supposed that this is an act of sheer provocation, using the image of an immodest woman to represent all that the perpetrators hate about the West. But Celeste realises it is less the exact meaning of the masks than that they provoke a reaction. The modern world prizes that reaction above all, and for terrorists, just like school shooters or pop stars, that is their power. The power of headlines, the power of being listened to, even if they have nothing of interest to say. What the terrorists wanted or stood for is left oblique, much for this reason. This is pop music meets post-truth; it doesn’t matter what is said, or even how it is said, only that people know who said it, and loudly.
Corbet builds these themes organically within a slightly more conventional narrative arc, though presented with fiery élan. Celeste’s fall from innocent child to drugged-out has-been functions in that it rejects the sort of naivety that plagues the likes of A Star Is Born. As much as Celeste initially presents herself to be incorrupt, she has from the very start a leaning toward the illicit. Fame exaggerates and enables this tendency, but does not create it. The sheer nonsense of the star system is then grounded by the droll narration of Willem Dafoe, who presents what is a very real scenario as some kind of twisted fairy tale, completed with a literal deal with the devil. But that is what makes the film so very obscene – it is entirely believable, a grand version of a very familiar reality. It is this conscious self-importance that leads to the film’s third act, which captures a Celeste concert in all its vainglory. Her washed-out and tired appearance is replaced by glitter and performance, dance and music. Image is everything, and here we are given a glimpse. Whatever truth that lay before is forgone in an instant, flashing artifice in its place. This is the reality people want to see.
Corbet knows this well, and so injects his own film with a similar flair. Most of the credits are placed at the front of the film, in an extended retro twist. The title has its own Von Trier style card that lingers onscreen. The score is exuberant, winding, sinister. The abstract imagery is striking, sometimes even suggesting Matthew Crawley. The closing credits are stylishly presented after a finale of rare suddenness in contemporary cinema. Many of these elements have no substantive purpose in their own right, but taken with the aesthetic philosophy of the film at large they seem to be an extension of its argument. A bright, even lurid, provocation. Bold choices that will force the film to be noticed, and force a few walkouts too. In short, attention for attention’s sake.
Vox Lux had its world premiere at Venice Film Festival on September 4th, 2018. It has yet to acquire a UK release date. Check out a teaser below: