Sometimes someone’s story is far more interesting and valuable than what they create. In the case of Celeste, its all about the singer rather than her songs. Named as a 20th Century portrait, this doesn’t explore what it means to be in the last century but merely when its set. The story of Celeste, of how she overcame a tragedy, how to rose to fame and how fame had treated her over the years.
Celeste is a severely injured after a student guns down her teacher and entire class. She escapes with spinal injury and has to learn how to walk again. At a memorial, as one of the survivors she is asked to speak but instead writes and performs a song with her sister. She is talent spotted and is swiftly turned into a pop icon. Decades later an older, bitter, moulder to the industry Celeste is distant from her daughter and no longer has a close relationship with her sister. She is also loosely linked to a terrorist attack when the terrorists wear masks from one of her music videos, the day she is about to perform in her home town.
Even though Vox Lux is only his second feature, writer director Brady Corbet has a distinct style. Like his debut, The Childhood of a Leader, the film is split into chapters, breaking up the tension and giving the audience to digest what they have just seen. Syncing between the chapters is William Dafoe’s voice narrating insightful comments about the characters which otherwise would not have been mentioned through dialogue. Both these devices make the film feel like you’re watching a novel, a literally story unfold in front of you. The close shots, sometimes so close and intrusive you can feel the characters breathe. The film challenges intimacy in that the audience is close to who they’re watching, hanging on Celeste’s weird words of wisdom and equal notions of grandeur. The lack of intimacy is also felt as the years go by, people have grown apart, they have changed, not for the better.
Music is the blood of the film and perhaps even its poison. In both Vox Lux and The Childhood of a Leader, music is used to intrude a situation, heightening a slight sense of pain, discomfort and joy. Celeste writes pop songs because, as she says, she doesn’t want to make people think, she wants them to have fun. With songs written by Sia, they are indeed catchy and have a great beat but they are barely skin deep, which is opposite to Celeste herself. By the time Celeste has grown up, with years in the industry, misdemeanours still linger in her past and her pain from the attack when she was young is still visible. There is far more to her but she won’t let that ruin her music.
As a film of two halves depicting teenage Celeste and older Celeste, fiction and reality are blurred as Raffey Cassidy plays both teen Celeste and older Celeste’s daughter. Cassidy is understated and has an unusual presence, seemingly wise beyond her years, knowing exactly what she wants and how to achieve it. Natalie Portman is on form, portraying the woman worn down by years on the road, moulder by industry, a living comment on modern celebrity culture. The two weave together a woman who is more than she wants to show.
A difficult at times to watch film, especially the scenes of violence in the school and on the beach resort, used probably as only context, still seem really fresh in everyone’s minds which might put some viewers off. But Corbet follows his strong disturbing debut with shock and awe, with another great soundtrack. It’s not all about the song, the singer has far more to say.
Dir: Brady Corbet
Prd: Gary Michael Walters, Michel Litvak, David Litvak, Christine Vachon, David Hiojosa, Andrew Lauren, DJ Gugenheim, Brian Young
Scr: Brady Corbet
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacey Martin
DoP: Lol Crawley
Music: Scott Walker, Sia
Running time: 110 minutes
Vox Lux is in cinemas now.