“Vox Lux,” a 2018 film about the psychotic churn of modern celebrity, is a work of art that suffers from the same issues it studies.
Manic, garish, ambitious and confused, the film variously entertains, confounds, bores and ultimately disappoints. Inadvertently, its sinusoidal trajectory simulates — but doesn’t effectively critique — the mania of celebrity culture in the 21st century.
The film follows an 18-year span in the life of Celeste Montgomery, a teenager from Staten Island who survives a school shooting. After performing a rousing original song at the post-shooting vigil, Celeste trips into pop stardom.
As is true of many public figures, Celeste's success was born from tragedy, luck and personal gifts. The film’s finest moments explore this tangled and terrible mix, showing how the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune vault a young girl into an adult world that swallows her like liquor.
The nearly 2-hour film has four sections. First, the prologue: the school shooting in 1999, the film’s emotional core and creative zenith. Then Act One, “Genesis,” set in 2000-01, in which the pious and cool-headed teenaged Celeste (portrayed here by Raffey Cassidy) emerges as a pop talent.
In Act Two, “Regenesis,” set in 2017, Celeste (now an adult played by veteran actress Natalie Portman) is a beleaguered, substance-abusing celebrity on the verge of a comeback. The film’s fourth part and finale is best described as a Lady Gaga concert video, if Gaga and her daring politics were subbed for a glittered Portman with sad platitudes.
The four parts require mention because each is distinct, disparate and disorienting. The prologue presents the film as a somber zeitgeist drama, like “Elephant” or “DeKalb Elementary.” Act One has the trappings of a coming-of-age teen flick, with the obligatory drug use and sexual awakening. (Devoutly Christian Celeste is just 14, and her lover’s in his 20s, but some combination of Europe and industry norms and substance use overwhelms her, or so we’re led to believe.)
Act Two then swerves, not just in tone but because of disruptive directorial decisions. In the 16-year intermission between acts, Celeste has not just abandoned her faith, her modesty and all traces of her personality, but she’s also gained a thick Staten Island accent.
Her younger self didn’t have one. More confusingly, Celeste now has a daughter — who is portrayed by Cassidy, the actress who minutes earlier played her younger self. The double casting demands double takes (rewinds, if streamed on Hulu).
Doubleness has its place in the movie, and the structural symmetry lends itself to internal comparison.
The film begins in darkness, with mass violence perpetrated in a music classroom. It ends under arena lighting, with a pop show on one of music’s biggest stages. More comparisons: Celeste’s heavy makeup and dark eyes also resemble the school shooter’s. She transforms from the classroom consoler who kept her calm in the face of evil to the one needing consoling amid a pre-show green room tantrum.
Perhaps it’s all to say that, one way or another, we become the monsters that haunt us, that we either create or destroy and we better choose.
I’d like to think so. But the film has too many flaws — too much noise — that don’t give its smarter bits a chance. The most egregious issue is a narrating voiceover by the memorable baritone Willem Dafoe, which has the pretentiousness and condescension of a college sophomore’s poetry.
It violates art’s most basic rule: show, don’t tell. In overwrought prose, Dafoe spells out major plot points, emotions, reactions, and subtext that ought to have been conveyed in other ways — or not conveyed at all.
Not everything needs to be explained, just as not everything needs to be seen. Some things ought to be private, invisible, unspoken, as Celeste herself sings in the film’s uninspired finale.
School shootings are diabolical. Celebrity status can be deleterious. We know these things. The task is not merely to remind us what’s already in the public eye but to challenge our gaze, or to sing a new tune. “Vox Lux” isn't up to either.