Starring Natalie Portman and Jude Law, VOX LUX (2018, streaming on Netflix) is about a young woman who becomes a pop star after a severe personal tragedy only to face her many regrets years later. The film is spiced with intelligent dialogue and titillating insights into the music business along with great artistic direction and performances, but otherwise it’s, well, a hot mess.
The film opens with 14-year-old Celeste surviving a school shooting and performing a song she wrote at the memorial service, which becomes a hit and opens doors for her to record an album and eventually become a pop singer. The film then fast forwards to her as an aging star increasingly unhinged by stress, regret, and substance abuse.
I’m not sure how to review this one. There’s a lot that’s likeable in the first half. The school shooting is genuinely horrifying, the memorial service touching, the orchestrations and discussions about the music industry spicy and authentic. The artistic direction is actually very good. The actors give solid performances, though the young Celeste’s Staten Island accent comes and goes, and she’s never really convincing as a charismatic singer, performer, and emerging savvy businesswoman modeled after Lady Gaga.
The rest of the film is Celeste as an aging pop star on the edge or past the edge of freaking out (with scenes playing out similarly though at a lower volume than HER SMELL, which came out the same year) plus a long stage performance that may be intended to be evocative of Hazel O’Connors’s iconic separation from her humanity at the end of BREAKING GLASS. While Portman delivers and again there are titillating insights about the music business, I was never clear on what the film was trying to say despite its Shakespearean tone, and as much as I love Portman, I didn’t believe her as a pop star in this any more than I did the actress playing her younger self. Add to that another mass shooting that again serves as a plot device and makes all the violence feel ugly for its inclusion and exploitative for shock value rather than informing a theme. The overall result reaches for poignancy but ultimately never really says anything.
Watching VOX LUX, I sometimes glimpsed the beautiful, Shakespearean, poignant whole I believe the writer/director was going for, but while many of the parts in the film are extremely well done and compelling, in my opinion their sum just didn’t add up to the whole of its lofty ambition, and when it comes to “fame leads to exhaustion and abuse,” we’ve seen the basic story told many times before. A tighter focus, perhaps sticking with the young singer (and picking one with a golden voice, as despite all of Lady Gaga’s marketing savvy and understanding of pop music, she is a stellar singer with natural charisma), might have made a huge difference here, but instead the film reached too far and grasped far less.