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Vox Lux

"Rivetingly eccentric"

★★★★★ - THE TELEGRAPH

- Natalie Portman is outrageously enjoyable as a troubled pop star. 

Stardom’s potency and price has been a hot topic at this year’s Venice Film Festival, not least with the unveiling of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s new adaptation of A Star Is Born. But Vox Lux vaporises the subject like a missile hitting a glitter ball. The second film from Brady Corbet, the 30-year-old director of The Childhood of a Leader, is a teetering melodrama about a singer called Celeste whose fame is forged in a 1999 high school shooting, and whose life and career become a Spandex-wrapped cipher for 21st-century dread. 

Natalie Portman stars as the adult Celeste, and gives an outrageously enjoyable performance full of expressionistic head-cocks, wrist-flicks and flounces, which frequently smacks of nothing less than Tom Cruise in drag. Admirers of her turn as Jacqueline Onassis in the biopic Jackie will be in heaven here: as in that film, there is an audacity and extravagance to her work that few actresses would dare attempt, let alone be allowed to get away with.

Yet the role itself is no joke, and Portman brings a laser-sharp interiority and focus whenever it counts. The young English actress Raffey Cassidy is outstanding, and very credibly Portman-esque, in a double role as the teenage Celeste and, later, the singer’s own teenage daughter – while Stacy Martin brings much-needed composure in the less flashy role of Celeste’s older sister Ellie.

Even her staff are tremendous: Jude Law is a grumbling, low-key joy as her manager, while Jennifer Ehle emits a Streepian hauteur as her publicist.

Vox Lux begins with a 1999-set prologue in which the school shooting takes place. The young Celeste survives the massacre with a bullet lodged in her spine, and a tribute ballad she composes from her hospital bed becomes a media sensation when she performs it at a memorial service.

“Act I: Genesis”, set in 2000-01, traces Celeste’s early days in the business: early meetings with Law and Ehle, dance classes, her first video, shot days after the September 11th attacks, and a trip to Stockholm to cut some tracks with the Swedish capital’s then-booming pop production scene. Corbet slips in a quick-cut history lesson on Sweden’s dominance-by-stealth of the western music charts that, among other things, makes a persuasive link between fascism and Abba: like the rest of the film, this is narrated by a thrillingly sinister Willem Dafoe.

“Act II: Regenesis” connects with the adult Celeste in 2017 on the anxious first day of her latest tour – press interviews, a tense lunch with her daughter – which is thrown into disarray when news breaks that a terrorist cell wearing the distinctive glitter masks from her 2001 video have killed an unknown number of beachgoers on the Croatian coast. Cue the existential crisis: Celeste’s own show-business career, sparked by a mass shooting and launched in the wake of an era-defining terrorist atrocity, has now grown big enough to itself impinge on, and perhaps even inspire, another act of mass murder. Catharsis is out, mimesis is in: the wheels of tragedy are turning backwards.

All-pervasive millennial unease – the sense the world no longer works as it used to, or should – is Vox Lux’s plangent root-position chord, and the film offers no easy cure – beyond Celeste’s genuinely great, and Gaga-like, music.

The film’s songs were composed by the Australian singer Sia, who also co-wrote the score with Scott Walker: imagine (in a good way) Bernard Herrmann on Tramadol.

“I don’t want people to think too hard,” Celeste says of her art at one point. “I just want them to feel good.” This rivetingly eccentric film blends both.

- Robbie Collin, THE TELEGRAPH

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