Vox Lux ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The tale of Celeste begins with a school shooting. A senseless act of violence, and in the aftermath, a grieving nation turns to music for comfort. Celeste herself was shot in the neck, but survived. What doesn't kill her made her stronger. Vox Lux launches from that point to become focused on a wild variety of topics, from the state of the music industry to terrorism to emotional healing.

Celeste's career is a rapid rise to super-stardom, aided by her nameless manager (Jude Law, a quite devilish figure - perhaps literally so) and her sister, a creative partner who helped to write many of her hits. The hits are infectious and intoxicating pop music, written by Sia, who herself has co-written for many of the grand pop divas of the day, including Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Christina Aguilera. Your Body Talk and Hologram (Smoke and Mirrors) are truly great pop songs, full of emotion and brain-worm hooks.

However, the first hit is the one America connected to: Wrapped Up, a moving ballad about putting your trust in someone else. As Willem Dafoe notes in his caustic narration, one simple lyric change turned a personal song into a universal one. There's no coincidence that her career blows up at the same time another tragedy strikes the country - the day the Twin Towers fell. I know the script for this was written before last year, but in light of the bombing of Ariana Grande's concert in Manchester, the first act of the film rings true.

The second act is something else entirely. Celeste has become a star in every sense of the word; everything she does is dramatic and larger than life. Whether she's dealing with the wheedling members of the press, the demands of her crew, or with her own daughter (Raffey Cassidy, pulling double duty as both young Celeste in the first half and as her daughter Albertine in the second half), every word she says and every move she makes is the most important thing anyone in the world has ever done.

Natalie Portman is magnetic in the role of grown-up Celeste. She's been consumed by her fame, so controlled by her public appearance that she feels hollow. Her existence is an act, down to her Staten Island accent, which sounds more like how an extraterrestrial would speak after following humans across the borough for a day. Another tragedy, another shooting forces her attention, despite it being half a world away. The power of pop music is so great that she must confront this mass murder on a Croatian beach. We watch her try to act like a normal person, lashing out at her worn-down sister and a diner manager, sneering at the perpetrators of the massacre (Dafoe notes her clever boast, "I've got more hits than an AK-47"). She's lost her connection to reality, yet it feels genuine - because that's the only way she knows how to act.

Her breakdown is calmed only by her sister, by reminding her of who she used to be - a real person. The film ends with a fifteen-minute concert, as Celeste goes through some of most notable songs, before a crowd of 30,000 adoring fans. They scream and cheer; a church of worship for one woman, one artist, one star. The credits are silent as the music rings in our ears.

Brady Corbet has worked with many of the acclaimed European art film directors in the past, including Olivier Assayas, Michael Haneke, and Lars von Trier; it shows. Vox Lux shows off their influence proudly, combining all of their styles and imbuing this blend with a shot of American sensibility about trauma. We look to people to guide us in dark times, to help us deal with pain. We expect them to care for us, to make sure there's no tears left to cry. Celeste's concert is a salve to the attendees. She reminds them by asking, "How many of you have cried yourselves to sleep?" before inspiring them with a rallying cry: "I'm not going anywhere!". The crowd screams, motivated by her words.

For a film that aims to cover so many different topics and filter itself through a uniquely bleak yet joyous frame, it's miraculous that it works at all. It's like a firework, bright and chaotic. You can read it in multiple ways and each answer is a solid possibility. Vox Lux is as complicated and multi-faceted as all the best pop albums; a free-wheeling ride through a glamorous music video, much like the one we watch Celeste shoot.

The power of music is that it unites us all; it guides us through hard times, and it provides a form of healing that no medicine, natural or man-made, can replace. Celeste's self-care soothed a nation, and it continues to have that quality, no matter how cynical Corbet feels about it. We all have our idols - and contrary to popular belief, there's nothing really wrong with that. I joked, when asked about seeing Beyoncé this past summer, that since the concert was on a Sunday night, I was going to church. Yet it wasn't really a joke. Vox Lux understands that - it doesn't matter how nihilistic or peeved you are about this culture of celebrity adoration - we all need it.

Perhaps one current pop-star, another New Yorker, said it best:

Just dance
Gonna be okay
Da-da-doo-doot-n, just dance
Spin that record, babe
Da-da-doo-doot-n, just dance
Gonna be okay
Da-da-da-dance, dance, dance
Just j-j-just dance.

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