By The Collectress
Films that profile the rise (and fall) of fame seem to be en vogue this year–A Star is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, to name a few–but Vox Lux, like its leading actress, Natalie Portman, seems to eschew the contrived formulas that we consumers of pop culture have deemed necessary to achieve success. There is no rags-to-riches here, no wide-eyed ingenue with a heart of gold that wows the disbelieving music exec at an open mic night. No, instead what you have is decent singer with a tragic backstory who has a hell of a talent for branding herself. In today’s world where brand is everything, Vox Lux’s Celeste is two people: the unstable woman who is haunted and afraid of her past, and the singer who is marketed survivor and appeals to the branded outcasts. Translated, “vox lux” means “voice of light”, and Portman’s Celeste is anything but that to herself.
If you’re walking into Vox Lux expecting a run-of-the-mill exploration of pop culture and fame, you will be sorely disappointed. From its opening moments, the film disavows the expectations of an audience who have been consistently fed a diet of sequels and Transformers films. The film opens with its full credits, and the cinematography is more akin to the opening sequence of Kubrick’s The Shining than anything featuring a pop starlet is supposed to have.
Indeed, the credits, paired with Willem Dafoe’s narration, should have prepared me for the shocking opening act, but I, like everyone else in my theater, was caught off guard. Trigger warning: this film contains gun violence toward children, drug and alcohol use/abuse, and other disturbing themes.
We are told that Celeste was born in 1986, but in truth, she is born in 1999, after she survives a mass shooting at her middle school at the hands of one of her classmates. It is in the tragic aftermath that she is discovered as a singer, and her trauma is the foundation of her identity as a international popstar. The film jumps between her life immediately after the event in 1999-2001, and 2017, when she is releasing her newest album Vox Lux after an absence of two years. We see two Celestes; the young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is a young woman recovering from trauma but with a quick uptake on what it’s going to take to break into the business; the adult Celeste is the product of that quick learning. She’s abrasive, unsteady, and first and foremost a businesswoman, armed with a devoted Manager (Jude Law), long suffering sister (Stacy Martin), and angsty teenaged daughter (Raffey Cassidy). She knows how to sell her brand, and though we can see the cracks in adult Celeste where young Celeste still lives, once she’s on stage, she’s 100% what the audience paid to see.
Possibly the biggest selling point of Celeste’s character (and the film) is her style. Young Celeste wears simple, unaffected clothing. Adult Celeste has leather, sequins, extreme makeup, and a hairdo that every queer woman in America would kill to have. There’s no explanation given explicitly for the change in Celeste’s style, except for a seemingly innocuous conversation that Celeste has with another musician, a rock singer, who we never see again. She describes to him a dream that she’s had every night since the shooting, of her travelling a long tunnel, and what’s awaiting her at the end of it is obscurity.
In the next few scenes, we learn of 9/11, and then we see Celeste shooting her first music video, featuring her in glam rock makeup, riding on a motorcycle down the long hallway she described, heading toward obscurity.
It was then that I decided that perhaps Vox Lux isn’t about fame at all. The fellow student who took a gun to Celeste’s middle school wasn’t particularly memorable in any way except one: he wore sparkly eye makeup. We can spend time assuming his motivations for mass murder based on that, but I think that the real story is in how Celeste chooses to move past that moment, if she ever does. She taunts the ghosts of her personal tragedy in the personification of her brand, by wearing makeup similar to that of her assailant. When rumor reaches her in 2017 of mass shooting taking place by people wearing masks that are attributed to her brand, she unravels. To the people within the story, it appears that she’s a diva playing the part of unreachable and unmanageable. To the audience, we see a woman who’s spent almost 20 years portraying a persona to the world to convince them (and herself) that she’s unafraid, that she’s stronger than she actually pretends to be.
Although the film’s structure avoids formula, will Celeste avoid obscurity? Perhaps the true commentary is this: is our culture desensitized enough to forget which traumatic event forged Celeste in its tragic wake? Are pop stars and incidents of gross and horrific violence now so commonplace, that they risk reaching the end of the tunnel to obscurity?
Vox Lux is framed as three-act drama. It is a tragedy? A comedy? I cannot say. The film ends where it begins, in silence, with credits rolling (albeit this time in the opposite direction). It’s as unexplained as Celeste is, and maybe that’s what fame actually is: a tragic backstory, a marketing strategy, and a certain je ne sais quoi.