Sunday, December 23, 2018

'Vox Lux' Review

Every so often a film comes out that many critics and audiences alike find completely baffling. Not because the film is bad, but perhaps because we don't have the language or the context to truly appreciate what we are seeing. It is a consistent phenomenon in the career of The Wachowskis, directors of The Matrix, Speed Racer, and Cloud Atlas. With exception to The Matrix, many of their films have been largely critically panned at the time of their release. Then, within a few years, their other films creep back into the conversation and are revisited, and are suddenly lauded. This will be the case with Brady Corbet's Vox Lux. Currently the butt of jokes and sitting at a divisive 59% review aggregate on Rotten Tomatoes, there is no middle ground to find on Vox Lux. People are either finding something incredibly special, or totally off-putting. I am firmly cemented with the former; Vox Lux is the art of cinema in its truest form; an uncompromising expression of ideas.

It is a philosophy of filmmaking preached by David Lynch, and I'm sure practiced by many more, that film should always be an exercise in interpretation, even for the director. Watch any interview with Lynch, and when asked to expand on the meaning of any of his films, he simply replies, "No." He discovers what his film means to him in the making of the thing. Everything before that is just an idea, and he takes that idea from his imagination and puts it right on the screen. In doing so, the film can mean countless things to countless people, can evoke any number of powerful emotions. That is what I see in Vox Lux; an amalgamation of several ideas, that on the surface could seem disparate, but if given time to reflect on can become quite profound.

The opening moments of the film immediately tell you what you are in for. The opening set-piece is a litmus test for whether or not you are willing to buy in to what Vox Lux is selling. It is brutal, dark, and impossible to look away from. In current cultural context, the film is immediately sticking its finger into an open wound. If you can't tolerate the pain, you may as well step away, because it won't get any easier.

The entirety of the film that follows is a reaction to the opening. Our protagonist, Celeste (in the first hour played by Raffey Cassidy, later played by Natalie Portman) is a victim, but survivor, of an unspeakable tragedy. At a memorial service she performs an original song that she and her sister wrote. As she sings, it is immediately clear that Celeste is an incredible talent. A few verses into the song, flashbulbs start popping off, illuminating a giant cross on the wall behind Celeste. A foreshadowing of her future under the lens of the paparazzi for sure. But, more importantly this establishes Celeste as a female Jesus figure for the millennial generation, born of darkness and her to suffer so that we can be happy. The song goes viral, and she is picked up by a producer (Jude Law).

The film's opening leaves Celeste with an irreparable spinal injury that will plague her with pain for the rest of her days. It is the constant, aching reminder of what horror fell upon her youth. Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman carry that with them expertly throughout their performances. We see how badly it effects Cassidy's Celeste when she is first learning to dance, but she pushes through anyway. In front of her friends and loved ones, Portman's Celeste walks in a sort of shamble and takes painkillers. But the moment she is front of press or paparazzi, she pushes through into a confident, sexy strut. That's just a sampling of the sort of minuscule things that both women are bringing to their performances that elevate them above and beyond. The one critique of this film that I find completely baseless is that Portman's performance is actively bad.

In one of the film's greatest scenes, Celeste is in bed with a boy, discussing her music. She says "That's what I love about pop music. I don't want people to have to think too hard. I just want them to feel good." She establishes her glittery, bubblegum pop music as her gospel. In its own sick and twisted way, Vox Lux is preaching self-care in a wild world. When every day you turn on the news to hear word of a different atrocity, it's ok to find solace even in shallow things; even in pop music. And we see that on the faces of Celeste's fans in the closing moments of the film. As Natalie Portman struts across a stage, Celeste asks her fans if they've ever been called names, or been put down. In that moment we see the smiles and teary eyes of the young people in the crowd. This includes a young man in heavy mascara, directly mirroring the young man that commits the violent crime at the film's start. In that brief shot, it tells us that Celeste's endless suffering has been worth it, if only to prevent, even once, a repeat event like the one that befell her.

And this is only my interpretation. I'm sure there's a million different lenses through which to view Vox Lux. It might be painful, but I'm certain that this is a film that could stand-up to countless repeat viewings and give you something new to chew on every single time. And to me, that is a trait that only accompanies a total masterwork. Love it or hate it, you can not walk out of Vox Lux without a lasting impression.

I give Vox Lux a 5 out of 5.