Friday 17 May 2019

The fame monster: "Vox Lux"

Brady Corbet's 2015 film The Childhood of a Leader was one of those directorial debuts that fell somewhere between curious and genuinely arresting: a dark-hearted origin story for fascism played out to a thunderous Scott Walker score, it was so unlike anything else a young American creative had reached for in the first years of this century that it couldn't fail to catch the eye - whether or not you were sold on its underlying psychology. His sophomore effort Vox Lux, a contemporary fairytale riffing on that creativity and celebrity born of trauma, demonstrates once again that this writer-director has his finger somewhere close to the zeitgeist, and an enviable contacts book besides - immersed in showbusiness, the film showcases bigger stars than its predecessor, splits its soundtrack between Walker and current pop goddess Sia, and employs Willem Dafoe on voiceover duties - and still you find yourself questioning the film's frankly gaga ideas of cause and effect. 

Corbet is at once more engaged with industry specifics, and the mechanics of how and why a star is born, than the broadly romantic Bradley Cooper: throughout Vox Lux, he dutifully logs the hours his heroine, a singer-songwriter known only as Celeste, spends in boardrooms and rehearsal spaces, soundproofed booths and group huddles, those bubbles that can put protective shields between damaged psyches and reality. (The conclusion is an unusually convincing depiction of a stadium gig, suggesting Corbet could take up a career in events management if this filmmaking lark doesn't pan out.) Much of the corroborating detail has the air of established pop truth: the trips to Stockholm to benefit from Max Martin-like production nous, the unpromising relationships with ill-shaved bad boys, the fraught, on-the-go conversations with increasingly estranged offspring. What's new is this: for Celeste to make it big, other people have to die. She's elevated by a mounting body count.

As a teenager (played by Raffey Cassidy), our heroine enjoyed huge success with a rerecording of a song she composed while recovering from a high-school shooting - and given how America has barely stopped grieving since, you get how such a heartfelt outpouring might be embraced as a second national anthem. Thereafter, Corbet and his Childhood co-writer Mona Fastvold insist, there is forever some psychic link between this girl and mass carnage. She's sitting atop the charts as the Twin Towers fall in late 2001; when we rejoin her in 2017, as a fully-fledged megastar played by Natalie Portman in full-on diva mode, it's in the downtime between an album launch and a terror attack at an Eastern European holiday resort, carried out by killers wearing masks Celeste herself had worn in her last video. The idea - and here's where Vox Lux gets provocative, contentious or laughably silly, depending on your point-of-view - is that extremism might be a corollary of celebrity culture: an imposition of will that leaves crowds screaming and makes monsters of mankind. Well.

Over the past two decades, celebrity - as evinced by everything from Woody Allen's 1998 film to last year's abominable Assassination Nation - has reduced filmmakers to gibbering hypocrites: fame is a terrible prize to pursue, at least according to the multi-millionaires whose agents have undertaken lengthy negotiations to ensure their clients' names feature prominently on the poster. Corbet is too coolly analytical to lapse into that hysteria, thankfully, yet from the first sententious words of Dafoe's narration to the reverse-scrolling closing credits, Vox Lux instead displays a straining seriousness that indicates its maker spent more time in pre-production revisiting his Michael Haneke DVDs than he did, say, the Britney back catalogue. (Corbet, you'll remember, was one of the whey-faced killers in Haneke's Funny Games remake.) On any other day, you'd doubtless find me insisting that the contemporary American cinema could well do with a shade more of Haneke's maturity and rigorous critical thinking, but the plain fact is that Vox Lux's thinking doesn't add up - conflating celebrity with mass murder would indicate that Corbet has mistaken candyfloss for asbestos - or at least doesn't add up to much more than a kind of paternalistic, high-culture fingerwagging that looks fogeyish in a thirty-year-old director.

The one person left having fun here is not someone you'd traditionally associate with the word: Portman, who gets to abandon her usual prim styling, curse in a salty New Jersey brogue, overdo the eyeshadow and hair lacquer, and start a ruckus in every scene and room she walks into. She can't do that much with Celeste's songs, which are at least semi-intentionally generic - you'd far rather hear whatever idiosyncratic spin Sia put on the original demos - but she's the one element of Vox Lux that seems to have been cut loose, for better or worse. The film around her struck this observer as uptight for no good reason, and deeply anticlimactic. Once it winds past the school-set prologue, this narrative holds none of the nasty surprises Corbet's debut film sprung on us; the backstage activity of the second half merely sprays a little glitter on what at every point seems a thoroughly flimsy thesis. The boldness of The Childhood of a Leader leads me to conclude Corbet has many more interesting projects in him - age remains on his side - but this one's all pretzel logic, a frowning condemnation of star power that relies on that exact same commodity to stay in any way watchable.

Vox Lux is now playing in selected cinemas, and is streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

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