Film Review: Vox Lux

Despite Natalie Portman in the lead and original music by Sia, this unfocussed drama about fame struggles to land the big, grim and obvious points it desperately wants to make.

As an actor, Bradley Corbet has appeared in all sorts of movies for name directors, including Catherine Hardwicke, Gregg Araki, Ruben Östlund, Olivier Assayas and Noah Baumbach, but he learnt everything he apparently needs to know from Michael Haneke (he was the sidekick murderer in the American Funny Games remake) and Lars von Trier (he was a background character in Melancholia).

However, when Corbet tries for the cerebral dread of Haneke or the pretentious outrage of von Trier, he falls annoyingly short. And even the off-putting title of this, his second turn as director after 2015’s The Childhood Of A Leader, seems affected and show-off-ish, especially when it appears that he’s unable to properly translate Latin.

With intermittent narration by Willem Dafoe (apparently shoved in at the very last minute), this has teen sisters Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and Eleanor (Stacy Martin) living their unremarkable lives, until both somehow survive a Columbine-like school massacre in 1999. The first particularly odd choice by Corbet takes place at this point, as the bloodied Celeste is whisked away by an ambulance, Scott Walker’s chanting musical score plays, and the end (not the opening) credits play at length so we can’t properly see what’s happening.

During a stay in hospital the sisters collaborate on a cloying tribute song (Celeste sings, Ellie plays the keyboards and mostly writes), and when they perform the thing at a televised church remembrance service it somehow (somehow!) becomes a massive hit.

Enter an unnamed manager played by Jude Law, who puts on his serious, grumpy voice and tries hard to give the proceedings some gruff heart, and Josie, a publicist portrayed by Jennifer Ehle, her face frozen into a creepy grin. Celeste and Eleanor are soon writing more material (well, actually the latter does the writing and the former takes the credit) and being sucked into the tawdry world of fame and celebrity, getting into drugs and saying farewell to their good-girl religious ways in the most clichéd of fashions.

When we pick up years later Celeste, now a major star, is 31 years old and played by Natalie Portman, who replaced Rooney Mara in this one’s troubled early production and reportedly shot her whole role in 10 days. It must have been a wild, heady time, but the result is less than perfect because Portman simply feels wrong here, as she adopts a heavy NY accent, lets it occasionally slip, and behaves in a puerile, grating fashion, quite unlike almost anything she’s done before.

Celeste has a teen daughter played (no, you’re not going mad) by Raffey Cassidy, who spends long, infuriating sequences arguing with her childish Mom and agonising about hopelessly familiar topics. You hope both will shut up when a horrific terrorist act draws upon aspects of Celeste’s music video iconography, but they don’t, and Corbet lets them carry on until the bitter end.

Full of ‘deep’ touches (note the unnamed characters, the separation of the narrative into Acts, and Dafoe’s cringingly ‘heavy’ sentiments), this stages its scenes of carnage quite well, which is a bit iffy considering that it so wants to be profoundly anti-violent. And no less than Adelaide’s Sia helped produce the thing and wrote some songs, including the several that Portman sings (or appears to sing) in the last half-hour or so, but they’re all cheesy and forgettable.

However Corbet would surely insist that that was indeed the point, as this is a study of modern cheesiness and forgettable-ness, but then again he would say that. And what more can be added? In the spirit of the lame Latin title, well, cave canem.

Vox Lux (MA) is in cinemas from February 21

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