I was lucky enough to attend the two Natalie screenings that took part at the Toronto International Film Festival, and am going to give thorough spoiler free reviews. Keep in mind that I will still be describing these two films (The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, and Vox Lux), so these reviews might be a little bit spoiler heavy, despite the strict intention of not giving away specific plot details.
Without further adieu, here is a review of the surprise hit Vox Lux by Brady Corbet.
There will be two types of reviews for Vox Lux. The first kind are warnings of the cynicism and nauseating nature of the chaotic film. The second are a celebration of the highs and lows of pop culture being brilliantly portrayed in an enigmatic fashion. This review will join the latter group. Vox Lux is not for everyone, but it is an absolute gem for those it resonates with.
The film is virtually split into two. We witness the public rise and private fall of the pop sensation Celeste. Her childhood is played by Raffey Cassidy (an excellent rising talent), while her adult self is played by Natalie; we only first see Natalie halfway through the film. Teenage Celeste miraculously survives a shocking school shooting (Corbet pulls no punches with the directing of this opening, and you may not be prepared for how difficult it actually is to witness). She takes part in a vigil at her church, and her heavenly voice immediately propels her into the upper echelons of the world. This song, in all honesty, has to be one of my favourite movie moments of 2018. You feel as though you are at the church soaking in the confessions of a traumatized youth, and it hits you hard. The film sprints through Celeste’s progression into the pop stratosphere, like these are memories that adult Celeste may be barely piecing together herself. A good chunk of the film is narrated by Willem Dafoe, whose stoic-yet-unique voice plays both God and gossip publicist.
We cut from minimalist maximalism (the squashing of a few years into a short time period) to maximal minimalism (the hyper focus of one single day). We see adult Celeste (now played by Natalie), and we may as well be the fans of a superstar whose hopes and dreams are shattered when we find out who they truly are. This immediately became one of Natalie’s greatest performances from one simple fact: she is playing against type like she never has before. The charming and magnetic Natalie we all know is now a monstrous diva whose toxicity is devastating to watch. Her venomous tongue and piercing glare are heartbreaking, because we know where this star came from. As Natalie’s first real foray into the role of an anti-hero, this was the right place to start, because it’s effectively jarring to see in the middle of this film.
Not only is Natalie’s Celeste threatening, but she is emotionally a hurricane. There’s something hyper real when she screams like a rupturing volcano. You don’t feel sad for her crying moments like you did in Black Swan or Jackie; you are actually more worried for her wellbeing, if anything. Adult Celeste is a ticking time bomb that is highly unpredictable, and for Natalie’s first real negativistic role, you really won’t know where you stand. It’s a spectacular leap from one extreme to the other: doe-eyed survivor into a star battling her egos and traumas all at once.
Her manager is played by Jude Law in an uncharacteristically gruff way (strong seemingly-Bostonian accent and all). Law is both young and current Celeste’s manager, which would be the most interesting casting decision if it wasn’t for another two that were made. Celeste’s child is played by the same actress that played Celeste at a young age (Cassidy); Celeste’s sister is played by Stacy Martin (she, like Law, never changes no matter what time period). Celeste being the biggest change between 2006 and 2017 is an interesting metaphysical shift that forces you to try and reanalyze the roles of these characters. Are we seeing a visual representation of moralities in these characters, as opposed to witnessing the actual aging of people? Why does Celeste age and no one else does (and why is Celeste’s daughter nearly identical to her)? Nonetheless, it is an interesting decision that will keep you guessing throughout the entire film, and there might not be a concrete answer to it all.
Whether you experience the teen years of Celeste at light speed or the day in the life of the superstar for an eternity, Vox Lux is an absolute trip. It has the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. When it gets dark, it gets nauseatingly dim. When it is joyful, it is almost anxiously over the top. It is the rush of a drug and the dizzying withdrawal. It is either for you or it isn’t. When extremities are done just right in cinema, it can feel like a connection you rarely feel. Think of the polarizing films Possession, Gummo, or Enter the Void. Vox Lux is the right kind of painful from start to finish, and it’s all glorious (for me, anyways).
A perfect description of the plot comes in the form of the film’s composers: Scott Walker (a ’60s singer that experiments with ambient, noise, and avant-garde music presently) and Sia (obviously a mainstream music sensation). Sia occasionally lends her voice as a haunting howl over Walker’s brooding music; Walker reciprocates this contrast by placing a beating heart in his ambience from time to time. It is a pairing that seems ghastly on paper, but it surprisingly works incredibly well, with a refreshing score as the end result. Sia provides young Celeste with her voice, while Natalie surprisingly sings adult Celeste’s songs in 2017 (or 2018) glory: sugar, glitz, and pro tools. These are songs that may not have made a big splash on their own, but they mean a lot more now that we have witnessed the backstory.
The most debatable moment of the film is the ending, which I will try and explain without spoiling. It isn’t a story as much as it is a feeling. It is the resolution of the film through the eyes of a Celeste fan, with the only parts that matter to these fans. This is the goddess these thousands of screaming kids, teens and tweens have waited for. This is the Celeste the world knows, but not the one we knew until the very end. It is an extended moment that may feel overlong depending on the audience member. For me personally, it was an escape that could have been the ruination of a tremendous film if it was done slightly different. It wasn’t quite the ride I think Corbet intended, but it was nonetheless a treat to behold.
Vox Lux is polarizing like many of Natalie’s recent picks. Did Jackie, Annihilation, or Planetarium work for you? Chances are your answers will be different for any of these films. The same applies with The Death and Life of John F. Donovan and Vox Lux, the two Natalie films that are doing their festival rounds. When these films don’t work, we at least get a look at something interesting with the hopes of what could have been. When they do work, we get Vox Lux: a film that sticks out from the pack of contemporary films in such an enigmatic way. Vox Lux isn’t for all, but it deserves to be tried by all.