There are a lot of movies out there about America, just like there are a lot of movies out there about pop stars. Hell, there are a lot of movies about pop stars at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival alone. By now, we know the drill: fame begins as a blissful thrill ride, and then the ego or the drugs or the general overwhelming experience get to our protagonists’ heads, sending them spiraling downwards toward death or slow, ugly rehabilitation full of arguments and screaming matches and reconciliations. All of the pop star films at TIFF this year break this formula, but none quite as deftly as Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, a harsh examination of our modern fixation on celebrity that paints the present as a horrific, violent dystopia.
Vox Lux begins with a tragedy by now all too familiar to America in the twenty-first century. Our protagonist, Celeste, is almost shot dead early in the film by a student at her school, but the lives of a number of her classmates are taken before the gunman turns the gun on himself. At the funeral, young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) sings an uplifting song and the video footage posted online immediately goes viral and lands her a record deal (this chapter is set in 2000 and 2001, the early days of online virality when everyday Internet stardom was still a decade away).
From there, we watch young Celeste blossom into manufactured stardom, taking a trip to Stockholm to record her music, choreographing the steps to a new music video, and meeting a fellow musician who ends up becoming the father of her child. Natalie Portman, playing adult Celeste, doesn’t show up until the final chapter of the film, after yet another mass shooting and then basically performing a Britney Spears concert full of, as Celeste describes them, “sci-fi anthems.” Portman paints her hair silver and dances in a sparkly bodysuit. It’s mesmerizing.
Additionally, Vox Lux features odd, unexpected performances from some of Hollywood’s most recognizable superstars. Portman spends her entire chapter of the film speaking like a bit character in a Sopranos episode, and Jude Law — as her constantly-put-upon manager — glowers and grumps through every scene, spitting each line past his rigid jaw. Law and Stacy Martin appear in every chapter, providing stable foils for Celeste’s rapid transformation after her meteoric rise to fame as a young star. Celeste is terrible at dancing and just okay at singing, but, you see, that’s the point. She was never built to become famous. In Corbet’s vision, it’s the world that has forced her to be this way.
There’s a lot more to Corbet’s film than simply a pop star story, and not all of it is easy to parse through. The first half of the movie ends with the 9/11 terrorist attacks — merely alluded to in one line, though the devastation is felt throughout the rest of the film, much like it was felt by the American collective consciousness. There’s a weird dichotomy drawn here between pop star godhood and media attention to international tragedies: Can the two be compared? Does one encourage or influence the other? We live in a world where mass shootings are almost as commonplace as pop music, the media cycles for both giving each narrative their own kind of power. It’s no mistake that Celeste’s art is inextricably linked to tragedy — it is practically inspired by it.
On top of all that, there’s a fascinating examination of the way we make gods out of our celebrities. We can never seem to decide whether the rich and famous are regular flesh and blood people who ought to be left alone, or voices of a generation whose opinions on any topic should be treated as gospel. When all anyone wants to do is worship you, what kind of person do you become? Are you even your own person anymore, or has your life already been irrevocably shaped by everyone else who is not you? Celeste has handlers, managers, and a jealous sister, not to mention legions of fans who treat her like she’s the second coming.
In Vox Lux, as in real life, celebrities are at the mercy of their fans just like gods are at the mercy of their believers, and Celeste — like, probably, most of today’s celebrities — is perfectly aware that she walks a slippery slope, everlasting veneration on one side and oblivion on the other.