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.