For the first ten minutes or so, Vox Lux had me just about over the moon. Opening on a black screen, Willem Dafoe does his best Rod Serling Phantom of the Paradise impression as we first meet the one and only Celeste. Before she was the biggest star on the planet, she was once just a little girl. Her early years are painted in broad, abstract strokes in the form of home video footage and sound collage, the momentum of the film barreling forward from its earliest frames. A school shooting presented as an almost textbook example of “the banality of evil” followed by some supremely inspired opening credits get you ready for what is sure to be a late contender for one of the best films of the year. Then the movie keeps going and all of that blows away.
If you’re hoping for the game-changing Natalie Portman performance that’s been hyped in what little promotion the film has received, get ready for a big surprise. The first solid hour and change is the story of the young Celeste Montgomery, played with zero charisma and one of the worst approximated American accents I’ve ever heard by Raffey Cassidy. But don’t blame her, because Jude Law also turns in some of the least convincing work of his career here, so all of this needs to be laid at the feet of actor-turned-director Brady Corbet. Throughout the film, Corbet proves time and again that there’s no detail too small for him to botch, no cinematic grammar he won’t accidentally violate and no way in hell he knew how to tackle thematic material this potentially rich. It’s like watching someone solve a knock-off Rubik’s cube by simply peeling off all the stickers.
Portman shows up to play the adult Celeste. She’s mother to a teenage daughter (also played by Cassidy, a choice baffling for more reasons than can be explained here) and benefactor to her older sister. Portman gets about twenty minutes to build a character for herself before the final quarter of the film is given over to an extended live performance. The big finale is shot and edited with such low energy that whatever we were hoping to learn from all this is not so much thrown as absent-mindedly dropped out the window.
With no internal logic to follow and a plot that could generously be described as meandering, Vox Lux presents us with all the most boring possible moments from the life of this supposedly world-renowned and beloved artist. Mass shootings, child stardom, the machinations of the music industry and even 9/11 all get a nod, all in service to nothing in particular.
Corbet is clearly convinced this is his Citizen Kane, which would be laughable on its own were it not for how deadly serious he’s taking his own story. Even Welles (and Wiseau, for that matter) had the sense at times to internally acknowledge just how bonkers their material and ambitions were becoming. Vox Lux drops the ball hard, no matter how loudly it claims to be swinging for the fences.