By Owen Van Spall @ Moving Pictures Cinema

I watched Vox Lux at Moving Pictures Cinema in Mercato Metropolitano in Borough.

If, like me, you find actress Natalie Portman something of an enigmatic and unapproachable figure, the kind of film star you could never believe just playing a working class joe, then you might well find Vox Lux a great showcase for her star image and acting ability. A cynical but not entirely dismissive look at the entanglement of musical ability, trauma, star power and image control, this strikingly shot, tonally odd story imagines a type of globally-conquering pop music borne of violence and disassociation, and how strange that would be to experience that from outside and in. It hails from the dark and serious mind of actor-writer-director Brady Corbett (who I first saw in Mysterious Skin), who’s directing debut Childhood of a Leader was an eerie experience indeed. This is a similarly-themed but slightly more accessible piece, helped in that regards not just by Portman’s lead presence, but by a professional sheen to the music aspects thanks to the presence of famous singer-songwriter Sia behind the scenes as songwriter and a score from the late, great Scott Walker.

The ambiguity of destiny seems to be again on Corbett’s mind as he takes a dark look at the birth of a star, with the rise-and-fall arc common to many biopics subverted. That’s not to say we don’t get a look the past of Portman’s character, a modern-day pop songstress called Celeste, who’s onstage dominance shields a life of drugs, booze, and struggles to reconcile with a daughter she had when she was just 18 and now barely sees. But rather than track Celeste through a series of formative events and obstacles overcome, we instead spend a good thirty minutes with her teen self caught up in the most unimaginable of tragedies – a chaotic and grisly school shooting that kicks off right in her classroom and leaves her physically scarred – before, after a brief time spent witnessing the fallout of these dark events, jumping ahead 20 years to where Portman takes over the role. This huge time jump might seem jarring, and not helpful to trying to connect the two different versions of the character, but the tragedy is on such a huge scale that it is impossible not to imagine that it would loom large, maybe even be life-defining, some twenty years later. It also speaks to today’s paranoia and grief that are now key cultural images of the American high school experience; as American schools no longer resemble, thanks to weak gun control regulations, places of safety for young people’s growth.

Celeste, played as a teen by the excellent actress Raffey Cassidy (who, in a nice twist, goes on to play older Celeste’s daughter in the film’s later acts, a way of keeping the tragedy of her youth symbolically visible) is a survivor of this horrific but all-too-common phenomena in the US, but her experience ends up becoming the platform from which she launches her career as a global pop icon. A sentimental, breathy song she was working up beforehand with her musically-inclined but less driven sibling Eleanor (played by Stacy Martin) is performed by the sisters at a funeral event and creates something of a local stir, before going viral and causing music executives to descend, including a grizzled producer-manager-come-impresario played by Jude Law. The signifiers of a rapacious industry all too ready to straightjacket any new fresh meat and exploit any event that inspires strong emotional reactions are all present and correct, but what is left tantalisingly ambiguous is how complicit Celeste is in all this and how much value should be attached to the emotional catharsis her torch song delivers. One key scene with Celeste and a group of high-power execs in New York plays very strangely given how assured Celeste comes off as about what she is doing, when you might be tempted to think she would be high vulnerable and a wreck after nearly dying only weeks ago. Contracts are signed, anticipated albums go into production, and a star image is started to be moulded off the back of this outrage. Is this a Faustian bargain, or manipulation, or both?

There is a mock-portentous approach to this, to be sure, with a smugly droll Willem Dafoe narration dropping in here and there, and Corbett balancing shocking ripped-from-the-headlines violence with outrageous behaviour from celebrity-obsessed executives and hangers-on with too much coke in their nostrils. The hand of Lars von Trier feels not too far away. But when the film jumps forward to Celeste in her 30s (now played by Portman as a veteran songwriter-singer preparing for a homecoming concert) an ambiguous, unbalanced, obnoxious but also compelling survivor is revealed to us.

Portman gives a fierce, oversized performance, certainly the most memorable since her role in Black Swan; playing a pampered, hard-drinking, drug-taking and shit-talking egomaniac whose appearance and high-handed behaviour rekindle memories of Liz Taylor and Joan Crawford whilst obviously also touches on modern social media-era celeb bad behaviour. Seen regularly high, drunk, and having hallucinatory sex with her manager in various hotel rooms, struggling with the number of secrets she and her sister have buried over the decades, and neglectful of her resentful daughter, Celeste is in many ways the kind of fuck-up we have seen before. Yet her onstage performances look very professional and the songs are even quite catchy, and we don’t get the expected phoenix-from-the-flames arc that usually makes up such biopic third acts (though some viewers might not like the lack of a redemptive or destructive climax). If Celeste did make a Faustian bargain to trade tragedy for talent, the talent bit seems to be holding up twenty years on, even if behind the scenes something clearly remains unsettled and fragile within her.

Maybe this is some comment one the way America seems able to continue on knowing every month will bring another school shooting. Maybe one day, Celeste will crack. Is this what fame is, something that just assaults you and maybe leaves you alive? For now, Corbett suggests, the show just stays on the road consuming all in its path.

Review by Owen Van Spall