Culture

Film

A scar is born: ‘Vox Lux’

By Luke Goodsell
Natalie Portman grapples with celebrity’s demons in this unconvincing film

Vox Lux

Cast your mind back, if you dare, to the often-harrowing popular music landscape of 1999, for it’s now been 20 years since we bid farewell to the dying gasps of the last century. Slim Shady, “Mambo No. 5” and Smash Mouth’s future meme “All Star” mingled with pop punk, nu metal and other post-grunge horrors, as a generation of American man-children rose up to greet the new millennium with a regressive howl of baggy-shorted rage. In the charts, ex-Mouseketeer Britney Spears danced her way down a school corridor to rescue us with a hit that would define an incoming pop era, while in Columbine, two heavily armed teenage industrial-rock fans marched into their high school and murdered 12 of their peers, inaugurating the nation’s still-prevalent cycle of mass media–scrutinised school shootings.

If the latter two events appear grotesquely unrelated to one another, then filmmaker Brady Corbet’s new feature, Vox Lux, imagines the rise of a teenage pop star and random gun violence as inseparable strands of modern cultural myth, locked in a dance of violence and escapism, of innocence shattered and reconstructed as a balm for national trauma. Armed with a star turn from Natalie Portman, whose real-life rise from precocious tween to Hollywood darling spans much of the narrative’s purview, and an original soundtrack shared between hitmaker Sia and avant-garde doomsman Scott Walker, it’s an audacious proposition – or so it seems.

Corbet, an actor who honed his sensibility under the likes of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, showed a flair for sinister, popular spectacle in his feature-directing debut The Childhood of a Leader (2015), which traced the rise of a superstar dictator through a fictional 20th-century fable. He strikes a similarly ominous tone here, with an unseen, Twilight Zone–style narrator (Willem Dafoe) framing the tale of future star Celeste as one of great pre-destiny. She was born in 1986, we’re told, “on the losing side of Reaganomics” (the Challenger disaster presumably just out of shot), while Walker’s low, rumbling orchestral score builds a sense of unease. At her Staten Island middle school in 1999, 13-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) comes face-to-face with an emissary of fate: a teenage boy wearing dark eyeliner, a Droog eyelash and a heavy overcoat, brandishing an automatic weapon like some angel of death from the future. In the ensuing gunfire, students are slain, and a bullet gets lodged in Celeste’s neck. A scar is born.

Historically, the carnage at Columbine darkened the mood of a country. Benefits were held, including a concert led by Spears, *NSYNC and Christina Aguilera, and a tribute record, written and performed by the victims’ classmates, garnered national airplay. In Vox Lux, a recovering Celeste warbles the fledgling power ballad “Wrapped Up” at a candlelit memorial, and assembled news cameras capture the performance for a grieving public. The song is a smash. Where music is often demonised for inspiring violence in real life – from Charles Manson’s wacky claim on The Beatles to the spurious association between the Columbine shooters and Marilyn Manson – here’s an instance of bloodshed allegedly provoking a pop hit.

It’s a tenuous pact that Corbet goads toward Faustian bargain, invoking the old myth of the bluesman at the crossroads. We learn that the Devil has gifted Celeste, while she was suspended between life and death in surgery, with popular melodies to bring to the people, and as the millennium dawns she’s fast-tracked to superstardom – a teenage deity for a turbulent age. In her music video for the Sia/Greg Kurstin–penned “Hologram”, Celeste appears in a silver mask, not unlike the Mephistophelean puppet of Brian De Palma’s rock opera Phantom of the Paradise (1974), and Corbet points his camera at the presumed false gods of industry – from gleaming Manhattan record-label towers to cookie-cutter Stockholm talent labs – to seal the shadowy transaction. Ushered in to a corrupt music scene, Celeste hooks up with a dark industrial rocker, cryptically billed as “The Musician”. Minutes after their initial tryst, 9/11 happens.

By the time this diseased symbiosis reaches 2017, violence and saleable innocence, and trauma and lightweight distraction have all-but blurred into each other. An adult Celeste (Portman), now 31 and herself smeared with dark eye shadow and attitude, has hardened into a cynical, media-forged megastar, while across the world on a beach in Croatia, a gang of “terrorists” spraying bullets into a summer holiday crowd are dressed in Celeste cosplay: glittery masks, aspirations to fame – a cultural folie à deux.

While Corbet’s screenplay heaves with clumsy grabs at thematic weight – Celeste has become “a prisoner of a gaudy and unliveable present which has reached the extreme of its cycle”, indeed – he and Portman convincingly conjure a pop-culture monster. Portman’s permanent, scar-concealing choker, reminiscent of her Mathilda in 1994’s Léon, gives the impression of someone whose head is barely held on with gaffer tape, while the shock white stripe sprayed into her wall of jet-black hair evokes, of course, Elsa Lanchester’s indelible Bride of Frankenstein. With her eerily frozen-in-time appearance, Portman is a passage across the decades, a perma-petulant teenager who once presided over her own queasy summit of violence and family entertainment: 1999’s other cultural event, The Phantom Menace. Hers is a ragged performance of an overmedicated, entitled child star, constantly besieged by the unreasonable pressure to be a spokesperson for her generation. Advised to focus her response to the terror attack on love and sympathy, Celeste isn’t exactly the picture of Ariana Grande’s post-Manchester bombing grace: “Can I tell these pricks to go fuck themselves?”

Yet Celeste’s adult behaviour also exposes the film’s rather trite and condescending impression of pop music. “There’s no money in music anymore, it’s all branded content,” she spits, not inaccurately, at her teenage daughter, the sullen, punk-rock-monikered Albertine (also Cassidy). “Their business model relies on the customer’s unshakeable stupidity… their commitment to the lowest common denominator.” When a news report suggests that “the gunmen were exploiting [her] image and body of work as a symbol of corruption in the West”, one wonders whether Corbet isn’t drawing his own link between a perception of pop’s dissociative escapism and a decline in moral rigour. With no small amount of pretence – formal and otherwise – he offers up mass-marketed music as salve churned out by a machine, the proverbial opiate of the masses, to distract the populace from its problems: personal, national, whatever. “That’s what I love about pop music,” the young Celeste had cooed to her doubting rock ‘n’ roll boyfriend. “I don’t want people to have to think too hard, I just want them to have fun.” Ugh.

It’s far from the first time cinema has gone after its upstart cultural cousin as an apparatus of expedient capitalism, as though the movies, in their artistic purity, remain somehow at a distance from these squalid commercial doings. For every cheerfully absurd A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Spiceworld (1997) there are twice as many prickly on-screen takedowns of music’s corrupt, manufactured heart, such as 2001’s product-placement meta-nightmare Josie and the Pussycats, or last year’s country-rock-fried dismissal of pop in the anguished remake of A Star Is Born. One of the most vicious, and best, remains Peter Watkins’s dark-souled 1967 satire Privilege, a spiritual ancestor of both Vox Lux and The Childhood of a Leader, which imagined pop music as a weapon of an authoritarian regime, designed to quell the unrest in its constituency. “Keep them entertained and off the streets and out of politics,” barked Privilege’s villainous culture minister. (Its handsome blond star, Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones, bears more than a passing resemblance to Scott Walker, whose own teen-idol status was starting to become a straightjacket at the time.) The concert sequences of Vox Lux strains to echo Watkins’s arch mise en scène, with its brainwashing jumbo-screen slogans (“Pray/Prey”) and militaristic scenes of fan worship. Celeste, meanwhile, recalls the sartorial style of two post-punk-industry cautionary tales: the skunk manes of the proto riot grrls in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982), and the quasi-futuristic leotards of the new wave anti-hero in Breaking Glass (1980). Neither, it should be noted, viewed the business of selling records – and selling out – with a particular fondness.

For a film subtitled A 21st-Century Portrait, Vox Lux likewise does a great job of leaning thematically into the provocative hubris of the past. “When I was a little girl I used to believe in God too,” Celeste admonishes the beach attackers, sounding less like Lady Gaga than Marilyn Manson. “Tell them if they ever come to their senses and they want something new to believe in, they can believe in me – because I’m the new faith.” Vox Lux posits a landscape in which pop stars might somehow retain the currency of all-conquering religious proclamations, but the grand gestures clang within the film’s feeble execution; every moment of potential wit is slathered in narration that merely parrots events already on screen. It is smart enough to land at least one contemporary punch against the ill-conceived rants of today’s reality-star leaders, to which it likens Celeste’s abrasive, potty-mouthed manner. “I got more hits than an AK-47 standard round magazine,” she trills, obliterating the lines between pop-star quip and unhinged political tweet.

Celeste emerges for her would-be show-stopping finale in all of her namesake glory, a body descended from the heavens in feathered wings and a suit flecked with tiny points of light – as though she were performing motion capture for some unseen animated version of her life. It’s supposed to be a transcendent send-off, delivering the audience, and presumably the public, from its problems, and a planet from its tragedy. But Portman’s shrill delivery, which makes Taylor Swift’s stadium stage banter seem charming, and her wall-to-wallpaper “hits”, dispatched in indiscriminate montage, fail to register. Here, Corbet commits one of music film’s fundamental sins: he fails to deliver a song that convinces as a popular smash. Where Celeste’s turn-of-the-century singles – “Wrapped Up”, the Lorde-esque “Alive”, Sia’s “Chandelier”-like “Hologram” – feel more anachronistically of the moment, her new album of “sci-fi anthems” sounds dated, its songs bleeding forgettably into each other. The Top-40 Euro-cheese of “Blinded by Love”, generic synthpop of “Firecracker” and “Private Girl”, and Gwen Stefani cast-off “Sweat and Tears” flatline like anonymous studio-musician attempts at pop-star personality, vapourising the moment they squeeze through Portman’s clenched lips.

Still, perhaps the anticlimax invokes that peculiar phenomenon of the present: the pervasive, algorithmically generated prevalence of interchangeable Spotify pop, looped in an endless cycle. Celeste says her latest album is designed to create an experience as “relentless and addictive as possible”, and while that claim rings false on screen, there’s purchase in the idea of pop star as uncanny avatar, as video game (even evoking the Columbine shooters’ much-reported obsession with the latter). In an era of holographic performances, D-grade celebrities karaoke-ing anonymously on The Masked Singer, and – lest we forget, now that it’s officially 2019 – Blade Runner, Celeste has finally become more human than human, a distracting simulacrum, as synonymous with her brand and image as much as with her actual musical output. But where does all the trauma go? For all its sound and fury, Vox Lux ultimately signifies very little.

 

Vox Lux is in cinemas now.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

@timebombtown

Vox Lux

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