This review has spoilers! Don’t read it if you want to see the film (but DO know the film has a lot of graphic gun violence before you watch).
Vox Lux is a film with interesting themes centred around a compelling character but ultimately is so graphically violent that it is hard to focus on anything else the film has to offer. Raffey Cassidy stars as a young Celeste, a self-assured child who survives a school shooting and happens upon a singing career, after a performance with her sister at a memorial is watched across the world. Natalie Portman plays Celeste in adulthood, though in many ways this impulsive and selfish later life Celeste is more childish than she was at fourteen.
The film’s early scenes feature a charming classroom teacher (Maria Dizzia) reuniting with her students after the holiday break. The tone of the film transforms as a student enters and shoots first the teacher, then his classmates. The confronting nature of this explicit scene is compounded by the surprise, the gun is hidden from the viewer, though not from those in the classroom. After a brief reprieve, while Celeste tries to speak to the attacker, she is shot through the neck. The camerawork is done so effectively that the scene feels too real and immediate. The close up of Celeste while she is shot, and the surprise of the initial gunfire, serve to create maximum shock value – unnecessary when the events are so inherently disquieting.
The exploration of terrorism continues and the second shooting of the film, involving terrorists who wear Celeste inspired costumes, is shown not once, but twice. I can confidently say the second time is unnecessary to an understanding of the film – I had my eyes closed. These scenes got me wondering at what point does graphic violence distract from the films other messages? At what point does violence prevent the ideas of the story from being communicated, as audiences are disinclined to see the film or are traumatised? Is there a way to explore terror without causing excessive distress among the audience?
My only other major takeaway is the brilliance of the actors. Raffey Cassidy is exceptional as a young Celeste and later as Celeste’s daughter. Stacey Martin is steadfast as her sister Eleanor. Jude Law is perfect as the unnamed and skeazy Manager (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with as few named male characters as this one!!! Very cool). Natalie Portman is entrancing. Standout moments are her impassioned paranoid ramblings at lunch with her daughter, which are both entertaining and distressing, and later, a backstage drug-fuelled deterioration. These scenes have incredibly long continuous shots, showcasing Portman’s skill portraying a character who’s offstage life is more theatrical than her on stage one.
The film does have moments of humour, and thank goodness for that. There was certainly no point where the cinema was united in belly laughs, instead the humour is ironic and dark. For me, the comedic highlights were the tongue in cheek interjections of Willem Dafoe as the occasional narrative voice.
The finale of this film is Celeste in concert and to the films credit, the concert feels remarkably real. Despite Celeste’s cookie cutter pop songs and the rainbow sparkly costumes, I could not relax and enjoy the spectacle. The pulsing tension created by the sharp camerawork and energetic score throughout the film had me extremely on edge and I was convinced that masked gunmen would appear at any moment. They didn’t.
During the final concert moments, there is a huge revelation as the narrator tells us Celeste has admitted to making a deal with the devil after the shooting of her childhood, a deal which would provide her with not only a second chance at life, but guaranteed fame and success. The implication is that her manager, Jude Law, is this devil. An agent of her success who encourages her greed, indulges and enables her drug use, casual sex and is the cause of jealousy – in retrospect it is clear this may be the case.
The parallels between this film and A Star is Born have not gone ignored, both look at the rise/fall of celebrity and the drawbacks of fame. The major parallel for me, however, is the discussion it spurs of the right way to explore potentially distressing themes in film, and the challenge of balancing between the exploration of ideas and needlessly disturbing audiences.
Ultimately, while there were some well done aspects of Vox Lux and it featured exceptional performances I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, the violent scenes were too much of an assault on the audience.