See VOX LUX in a cinema. One with the best sound system you can find. Beginning with a voice over a black screen, the stage is set for an audio treat of a film. Not just the music but in a sudden hit of flocking wings which extends the mystery of the opening or in the superb rendering of mood, aspect, and point of view through mixing of the performance sequence at the end of the film.
After a horrifying and violent incident, 14 year old Celeste comes to national attention for her humility and sweet singing voice. She will be adopted by the masses and co-opted by the music industry. Some 18 years later, still with the same producer though both have changed, she is beloved by fans and betrayed by most of those around her. Except the sister, Eleanor, who has stuck by her, and her legacy, through it all. The next big concert looms but so does personal scandal and international concerns.
The trailer might give the impression that this is a Natalie Portman vehicle and she is mesmerising in it. With a strut that is pure arrogance colliding with bravado and the portentous vacuousness of pronouncement that only a starry survivor can think relates to art, she sweeps through the second third of the film. But before that wonderful performance, there is another.
Raffey Cassidy is equally magnetic as the young Celeste who shows some steel early but who will have her intelligent ego subverted by prostration to consumerism. Cassidy is brilliant in a role where girl meets ambition despite the physical cost. She brings an instinctive Celeste who has the makings of a media-savvy independent artist but who will lose her self-perception.
Mostly through the agency of her twitchy, mannered publicist Josie ( Jennifer Ehle) and the blowsy self-interest of her producer/ manager played with shambling resignation by Jude Law. Also playing an excellent role as the thankless and guardedly loyal sister is Stacy Martin. It is a truly fascinating cast in a film which has a much a more complex and episodic narrative quality than one might expect from the trailer.
Director Brady Corbet, who also wrote the screenplay, uses close-ups in a detailed and engrossing way to become the driver of the story. So much happens outside the frame, which allies with the pseudo-documentary format in places. Those elements are narrated by Willem Dafoe in the third person and there is a home video beige tint to the non-stage scenes. The audio is especially effective when it rings in the background of events. Events seen through landscape and news and Celeste’s 18 year growth.
Choral innocence underscores sirens, silences are filled with the creak of her leather jacket, Pop pulses and Sia’s music is never less than perfect for each emotion. For a film which has a disembodied narrative voice VOX LUX has characters drawn with incredible complexity and detail. And style. This is such a brilliantly styled film, glorious costumes and an incredible exploration of the created iconography of a manufactured musician.
Directed with lighting and camera setups to film each scene without a break, the lack of cutaways gives the film a cohesion and naturally quickened pace which draws the viewer into events. This is especially true of the extended song which concludes the film. A kind of GlamPop extraganza which has some very commanding singing and dancing from Portman but which fades in places, and echoes and warps depending on what point of view we are witnessing. It’s a brilliant chunk of filmmaking in a movie that is deeply disturbing and as aggressively controlled as any flawed star’s public image.