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Toronto International Film Festival 2018: Vox Lux – Review


Release Date: 7 September [Canada]
Director: Brady Corbet
Writer: Brady Corbet
Cast: Natalie Portman - Raffey Cassidy - Jude Law



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Posted September 16, 2018 by

Toronto International Film Festival 2018: Vox Lux – Review

Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy) is a talented young musician and singer living in a small town. Whatever her hopes and dreams were, though, changes completely when her school is attacked. Celeste is considered lucky to have got out alive but she hasn’t been left unscathed. The attack leaves her with a spinal injury and the recuperation process is slow.

Helping Celeste through her recovery is her older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin). Eleanor feels guilty for having been away when Celeste’s school was attacked, and to make up for that, she loyally stays by her younger sister’s side. Together, they decide to write a song about Celeste’s experience which Celeste sings at a memorial for the victims of the attack. Unbeknownst to her or Eleanor, a music producer is in the crowd, and he immediately recognises Celeste’s potential.

Celeste’s family hires a manager (Jude Law) to ensure that she gets the best resources to pursue her music, and Eleanor stays with Celeste at all times. The sisters have never been closer, but one unfortunate event will soon tear them apart.

Fifteen years later, Celeste (Natalie Portman) is staging her comeback tour. She has had a rocky personal life but she has always been a success in the world of music. Her hiatus was self-enforced so she could work on her music, but she’s back in her home-town now. Her sister Eleanor is again by her side, as is her daughter, Albertine. 30,000 people are desperate to see Celeste in concert. Nothing could possibly go wrong, could it?

Director Brady Corbet, a former child actor, is still new to the director’s chair – Vox Lux is only his second feature film. His inexperience shows in the number of things he tries to do with the film. There are so many levels to the story of Vox Lux, that it is almost impossible to pin it down to one genre. It is partly a drama, a mockumentary, an homage to the 70s, a coming-of-age film, a musical, and a pastiche, all in equal measures. Does it get a bit muddled? Yes, it does. There are times when one genre overstays its welcome, leaving the audience confused as to the film’s final goal.

But, to say this is to dismiss the nuances of this frankly bizarre, but captivating film. Vox Lux is more than just the sum of its genres. Where it could easily have been a run-of-the-mill story about a pop star struggling to cope with the pressures of stardom, it becomes the story of a young woman whose life is thrown completely out of kilter by shocking events; the kind that are relevant to our current political climate.

The only point where the film fails to bring coherency to its genre mash-up is right at the end. The unusual choice to go with an elongated scene of protagonist Celeste’s concert fails to have any pay-off. The most important reveal directly related to the concert is given to the audience via the narrator. But, the concert itself has no proper conclusion.

In fact, when the credits rolled, the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival screening I was at were so confused, they sat in silence for a few minutes before realising that the film was indeed over. The applause that ensued was hesitant and sporadic. Will it be one of those endings that has people talking about it for days on end? Well, I’m still thinking about it, hours after the film, so that may have been director Brady Corbet’s intention all along.

For a film billing Natalie Portman as its principal star, she actually only appears halfway through the film. The film feels transformed by her presence and made me question whether we needed so much time dedicated to young Celeste. Raffey Cassidy does a solid job in the role but is sometimes a bit monotone and expressionless. She also struggles to control her accent, which tended to disappear from time to time.

Portman, on the other hand, has a commanding presence and takes over the screen. The older Celeste is much more ornate in her costumes and make-up, and that certainly helps, but Portman really knows how to embody her role. Comparisons to her turn as ballerina Nina in Black Swan are inevitable – the roles are startlingly similar, as is the make-up, in parts.

But, there is none of the innocence or naivete of Nina in Vox Lux’s Celeste. She is a harsh woman, built up by success and beaten down by fame. She is foul-mouthed, narcissistic, self-involved, and has no qualms about who gets left behind on her road to glory. Portman is in her element bringing this character to life.

The only point where Portman fails to shine is when she has to dance. And she has to dance a lot. Portman can do ballet, but she can’t do modern dancing. She does try, though, but her movements are so restrained and inelegant that one wishes the scene would just end. Part of me wants to say that it was the character, but I think that would be too generous. Portman has the energy and the enthusiasm – she looked like she was having the time of her life on that stage – but the fluidity is just not there. Which is a shame because the concert sequence was a delight to watch, even if it didn’t quite fit in.

Jude Law as the manager – he is never given a name – was good, but not stellar. He dons an American accent and does it surprisingly well. However, he feels underused in this role. We get a sense that the manager has Celeste’s best interests at heart even if he doesn’t control the toxic elements around her, but we never really get to fully explore the Manager’s relationship with either Celeste or Eleanor.

From the supporting cast, Stacy Martin holds her own in her scenes but, like her character, Eleanor, she is often pushed aside to make way for others. The couple of scenes she does get to herself, she reveals a great deal of talent and will hopefully get to showcase that more in the near future.

As this is a film about a pop star, it would be remiss of me not to mention the music. All the film’s original music was created by Sia and the songs are really catchy. I want to get my hands on the soundtrack because the songs were so much fun!

Vox Lux is a strange film. It could have been better written and edited, and definitely more focused, but there is no denying that this film is an experience. It draws you in from the first moment you hear Willem Dafoe’s narration right through to the end. You won’t know what has happened, or why it has happened, but you will come out of the theatre thinking about this film and wanting to go back and see it again.


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Louis Skye
Freelance Contributor

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