In 1999, future pop star Celeste (Natalie Portman) was a teenage girl (Raffey Cassidy) who was attending her music class in high school. After a brief chat with the teacher, she went to her desk and prepared for the lesson, but then a shot rang out and everyone in the room screamed: one of the students had entered the room and murdered the teacher. He had an automatic weapon with him and fired off a hail of bullets to make sure the schoolchildren knew he meant business, yet Raffey was not satisfied with that and tried to reason with the killer. For her trouble, she was shot in the neck and injured in the spine, while the rest of her classmates were executed by the maniacal pupil...
If ever there was an attention-grabbing opening to a film, director Brady Corbet had his all worked out with Vox Lux, like his debut Childhood of a Leader a pseudo-biopic of someone who never existed, but was a composite character leaving the audience mulling over who Celeste was supposed to have been inspired by. Before Portman took the limelight, we were served up two acts describing the shooting and the aftermath, where our heroine became a national sensation when she released her own self-penned songs about her experiences which handily doubled as modern sounding pop. By the close of this second act, she has become a star, with an irascible manager (Jude Law) into the bargain.
The two initial instalments went on for some time, relative to the amount of screen space offered Portman, who took her own sweet while to arrive as the focus. But this was necessary: we have gotten used to Celeste as goodnatured girl coping with trauma and newfound fame on which she will be able to build a career as a celebrity, but already she is making mistakes, such as the night she spends with a rock musician who gets her pregnant while still a teenager. When we catch up with the daughter in the latter 2017 sequences, she is somewhat confusingly played by the same actress who played Celeste, English actress and rising star Cassidy, and she is almost the same person in approach.
As far as personality goes, with the celebrity of her mother affecting Cassidy's Albertine in almost as damaging a manner as the shooting affected Celeste, without the benefits of making her a lucrative star. Fame was what was on Corbet's mind here, and he had had a taste of it himself as a pretty boy aspiring actor, however it was apparent from his demeanour here that taste had been enough and he had more pressing things on his mind. When the 2017 section sees a recent beach terrorist attack by radicals who sport disguises seemingly inspired by one of Celeste's pop videos, we are supposed to regard their new fame as the equivalent of Portman's megastar status. Or at least that's how Celeste immediately makes the connection, knowing that the media will fall on her like carrion to pick her bones clean of any claim to respectability.
Although it came across as a straightforward story of the rise of a pop performer, there was a lot going on here, with a curious contempt for celebrity in a manner that could only have stemmed from experiencing it. Corbet saw little difference between the escapist pop star and the fanatic with the gun: they both have their ardent followers, they both have their hate-filled opponents, they both crave a notoriety to keep themselves motivated, and when it boils down, being famous for something across the globe is a very twenty-first century way to live your life. With Celeste, she became a celebrity victim, but with the murderers, they are creating victims and getting their buzz off the back of those actions. Portman truly committed to her role in a manic style, either throwing tantrums, acting entitled after almost two decades of her career success, failing to boost either Albertine or her on-off estranged sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) as if she secretly suspects she could live without them and simply get by with the adulation of her fans. Those fans are seen only occasionally, building her up as the support they need in their lives; the film can barely suppress a sneer of derision in Willem Dafoe's voiceover. Music by Sia and Scott Walker (his final work).