Natalie Portman thrives on extremity. She's never more thrilling to watch than when she veers from naturalism and plunges headlong into artifice, abandoning caution – but crucially, not technique – and embracing wild mannerisms of speech and gesture.
In her best performances she has deconstructed the agony and the ecstasy of life in the spotlight, first in her dual-layered turn as a ballet dancer in "Black Swan" and more recently in her extravagantly emotional portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in "Jackie."
But Portman has never explored the darker side of celebrity as provocatively as she does in "Vox Lux," a mesmerizing brew of pop-star psychodrama and cultural history, as well as a corrosive rejoinder to Hollywood's latest burst of "A Star Is Born" mania. Brilliantly directed and written by actor-turned-filmmaker Brady Corbet, the movie tracks the phenomenal rise of Celeste Montgomery, a fictional celebrity forged in a crucible of blood, bullets and tears.
Like Corbet's feature directing debut, "The Childhood of a Leader" (2016), an ominous historical fiction about a future fascist dictator, "Vox Lux" is about a monster in the making. It's also about the broken world – one obsessed with celebrity and occasionally distracted by grief – that enabled that monster to begin with. For Portman, after the tightly wound perfectionists of "Black Swan" and "Jackie," it's an opportunity to cut deliciously loose.
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We first meet her Celeste in the hours before a big concert, strutting about in black leather and angry eyeliner. Later we will see her nurse a midday drink, chew out a restaurant manager and then crash to the floor after a pre-show drug high. Portman delivers a master class in appalling celebrity misbehavior: She sneers and snipes at everyone in her path and takes refuge behind a series of long, self-pitying monologues.
It's an arresting, boldly alienating screen performance that destabilizes the movie even as it brings it together. "Vox Lux," which bears the subtitle "A Twenty-First Century Portrait," is divided into two acts set 17 years apart; we don't even meet Portman's version of Celeste until the second half. This rupture proves entirely fitting for a character whose identity has been shattered by tragedy, one that strikes early and casts a ghastly pall over the entire picture.
The calm of a chilly morning is broken by gunshots at a Staten Island high school, where Celeste (an excellent Raffey Cassidy), a quiet, wide-eyed teenager, gently tries to talk an armed gunman out of his rampage. Her efforts are in vain, but the fates are clearly listening: Celeste survives the carnage and goes on to sing a song of mourning – one of several tunes expertly written for the movie by Sia – at a memorial service, backed on the piano by her older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin). Her gorgeous, quavering solo is picked up by TV cameras and beamed out to a world desperately seeking hope and redemption.
It's 1999, the year that both Columbine and Britney Spears became household names. "Vox Lux" doesn't name them, but its inspirations are myriad: A list would have to include everything from the Sept. 11 attacks and the 2015 mass shooting in Sousse, Tunisia, to the careers of pop divas like Katy Perry and Ariana Grande. Before long Celeste will join their company, acquiring a sleazy manager (Jude Law) and a deal with a record label represented by a cautious executive (Jennifer Ehle). With the long-suffering, more musically gifted Eleanor, these two will spend the rest of the movie wrangling their increasingly hard-to-wrangle star.
"Vox Lux" is a case history, but one curiously disengaged from conventional psychology. Celeste's transformation into an overnight sensation, an American idol baptized by carnage and sheathed in glitter, takes place at a fascinating emotional remove; it isn't dramatized so much as summed up by an off-screen narrator (Willem Dafoe) who turns up regularly to offer dryly withering commentary. It's an impish touch that points to the influence of Lars von Trier, one of several directors Corbet has worked with – the others include Michael Haneke and Antonio Campos – who like to approach the horrors of humanity from a chilly intellectual distance.
At times "Vox Lux" plays like a synthesis of those filmmakers' sensibilities with its vaguely apocalyptic tenor, its sinuous, flowing camerawork and its hypnotically eerie music. (The 35-millimeter cinematography is by Lol Crawley, the score by Scott Walker.) But there's also a playful streak to Corbet's formalism, and even his most disturbing sequences have a strange way of pulling you in rather than pushing you away. The movie doesn't just feel coldly analytical; it's raw and enveloping, darkly funny and terribly alive.
At the halfway mark, Corbet juxtaposes one of Celeste's dreams and an equally dreamlike music video, suggesting the tenuous links between reality, fantasy and artistic creation. He leaps from there to another mass shooting, this one set in 2017 and carried out by assassins wearing the same shiny colored masks as Celeste and her backup performers. In a way that reminded me of Bertrand Bonello's recent film "Nocturama," another two-part tragedy, "Vox Lux" interrogates a culture in which mass violence becomes mass spectacle, and the practice of terrorism blurs into the language of advertising.
These ideas swirl and swirl around the movie, giving it shape and density even when its conceptual coherence seems about to falter. You may not believe your eyes when Portman first appears; she doesn't disappear into the part so much as devour it, which is precisely the point. The sweet, naive young Celeste hasn't just become a star; she's transformed into a titan, a supernova, a galactic force. That Martin, Law and Ehle remain in their roles, like little moons trapped in Celeste's orbit, merely adds to the mounting sense of a world out of whack. (So does the reappearance of Cassidy, who plays a crucial secondary role as Celeste's teenage daughter, Albertine.)
The demons that Celeste wrestles with are nothing new: various forms of substance abuse, a monstrously indulged ego, a stream of men who range from opportunistic to predatory. But the movie, harsh as it may be in its view of Celeste and what she represents, also knows better than to sell her short. There's a stunning, exultant moment when Celeste performs in her shimmering electropop-Oompa-Loompa regalia, and Corbet seems as rightly transfixed by her as we are. Her triumph may be the product of a Faustian bargain, but "Vox Lux" more than gives the devil her due.