By Jack Dignan
I thought I had it all figured out. By my logic, a movie featuring two Natalie Portman’s is bound to be good. Just take a look at Black Swan and Annihilation. But after watching Vox Lux, I’m forced to reevaluate that theory. Perhaps it’s not just movies with two Natalie Portman’s, but instead, a Natalie Portman movie that features any actor playing two different characters, as Vox Lux features Raffey Cassidy in duel roles of a young Celeste and, later, her daughter Albertine, and it ended up being one of my favourite films at TIFF.
There’s not much that can prepare you for the insanity, brutality and unnerving simplicity of Vox Lux. Its narrative structure is akin to that of 2015’s Lion, where the life of our protagonist Celeste unfolds and intertwines over two separate time periods, painting what writer-director Brady Corbet describes as a “twenty first century portrait.” The young Celeste, played by Cassidy, uncovers fame amidst tragedy, while her older counterpart (now played by Portman) seeks to unravel the lingering effects violence has on a person’s psychology, especially when pushed into the public eye.
It’s a terrifying, unsettling, political assault that works as both as Black Swan-esque musical drama of a pop star on the edge, as well as a social commentary on terrorism and gun control, especially in relation to celebrity status. The film argues that the link is larger than one might expect. Corbet’s screenplay is a strong and powerful singular vision, elegantly narrated by Willem Dafoe. His art-house style and complicated approach to story won’t sit well with everyone, especially during an unexpected burst of violence early on, but as the pieces of the puzzle are slowly placed together, a true work of art rises to the surface.
Working together with cinematographer Lol Crawley, whose use of long shots creates great suspense and serious shock value (that opening sequence was haunting), and composer Scott Walker, whose score is infused with original music by Sia, Corbet is able to convey his fierce commentary on the world in an all-encapsulating, cerebral experience unlike any other. It digs deep in the correlation between art risen from tragedy, and its implications towards further violence, all wrapped in a vile and discomforting experience that ends with a fifteen minute concert sequence because why the hell not?
The transitioning period between the two timelines does take a few moments of readjustment. Some characters are recast, most obviously Natalie Portman, while others remain the same (her sister doesn’t age a day in the decades long time jump, while somehow Jude Law manages to look even scrubbier), but it takes longer than it should to get your head fully wrapped around what’s happening here. They are, in a way, two very different movies, linked solely through theme and message, but both work.
Choosing a preferred half feels unfair, as you can’t really have one without the other, but the sprawling narrative of the first half felt like it had more to say than the condensed single-day story of the second half. But still, this second half is far from mediocrity, and Portman’s performance is absolutely killer. Expect supporting actress acclaim in all major awards seasons throughout the coming months. There are a limited number of people I feel as though I can recommend this movie to, but for those who, after reading this, sound at least somewhat intrigued, I certainly beg you give it a go. There hasn’t been anything else like it so far this year.
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