Surrounded by adoring fans and photographers, Natalie Portman stands out in her Gucci sequined gown on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival. As she is about to attend the screening of her new film Vox Lux, the audience’s expectations are high.
From a dedicated and tortured ballerina in Black Swan to the First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy caught in the trauma of her husband’s death in Jackie, the roles that Natalie Portman has brought to the Venice Film Festival have been challenging and haunting. In Vox Lux, Brady Corbet’s second feature, Portman plays Celeste, a superstar constantly on the verge of a mental breakdown as she tries to deal with a tragic event from her past.
Starting in 1999 with a school shooting that eerily recalls the Columbine high school massacre and ending in 2017 with a beautifully staged dance-pop show, the film explores questions about history and fame: is notoriety all about manipulation and worship? Is it, as Celeste states in an interview in the film, just making “people feel good”, so they do not think? Does history repeat itself?
Divided into two halves – “genesis” and “re-genesis” – Vox Lux opens with a young student showing up late to his music lesson and unexpectedly shooting the teacher. While the other students panic and try to hide in one corner of the room, adolescent Celeste (played by Raffey Cassidy, previously seen in Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer) remains seated and tries to reason with the shooter. As soon as it seems that she has succeeded, the boy fires more shots, one hitting Celeste in the neck. The scene is especially effective because of Corbet’s directing: we do not see the shooter as he fires the gun, but the focus is on the teacher’s confused and terrified look before dying and later on Celeste’s face covered in blood.
The consequences of this tragedy are unexpected: after healing in the hospital with the support of her sister (Stacy Martin from Nymphomaniac), Celeste attends a vigil for the victims and sings a song she has written. The simple and heartfelt performance captures the attention of a music agent (played by Jude Law) and of the nation. Celeste becomes famous at just 14.
Fast forward to 14-years-later, a terrorist mass shooting in Croatia seemingly implicates Celeste, as the attackers wear masks copied from one of her music videos. Here Natalie Portman makes an entrance, as Celeste as an entirely transformed superstar – clearly referencing divas such as Lady Gaga and Madonna – with a teenage daughter (also played by Raffey Cassidy) from a random rocker, to whom she lost her virginity years before. Portman takes the character, played by Cassidy with grace and gentleness, to new heights. Celeste is no longer a curious and meek adolescent: with her artificial hairstyle and glittery makeup, she has become arrogant but also deeply unstable. The terrorist attack further mines her mental stability, and Celeste falls back into a vortex of drugs, alcohol, and madness. One scene when Portman particularly demonstrates her acting virtuosity is her panic attack backstage right before the show. Here we see her character suddenly surrender to madness as she cries and shouts her insecurities – first held by a stoned Jude Law than in the arms of her caring sister – in relation to her appearance and her feeling of inadequacy and guilt towards her daughter and sister.
Overall, the key issues of this bleak and glamorous tale could be the consequences of lost innocence and random violence. With wonderful performances, daring stylistic choices, a voiceover narration by Willem Defoe that explicates the nature of the film as a social satire and engaging soundtracks by Sia, Vox Lux is a scary but fascinating experience.