Ah, dear readers, I have not been entirely forthright with you. For I saw Vox Lux before A Star Is Born. But I had to see the latter to know how it stacked up against the former, because the two films, released almost simultaneously, have drawn many comparisons.
And indeed, there are some striking similarities: both films are about a young woman who meets someone who helps her achieve musical stardom. Both films feature a fan being attacked in a restaurant for asking for a picture with a famous person. And both concern a star who, despite all their professional success, has demons of their own to battle.
When it comes to critical reception, of course, there’s no comparison: the critics loved A Star Is Born; they were lukewarm on Vox Lux. Likewise, at the box office, Star demolished Vox, by a score of approximately $432 million to $874,597.
And despite the superficial resemblance, they are very different kinds of films about very different things. In fact, part of the reason for the success of A Star Is Born could be that it’s easy to describe and summarize. What kind of a film is it? A romantic musical drama. What’s it about? A couple of musicians who fall in love while their careers are headed in opposite directions.
Meanwhile, what kind of film is Vox Lux? What’s it about?
Eh, well… we’ll get to that later. If you’re a regular here at Ruined Chapel, you know that I like to take my time in these reviews. I view them rather like legal cases in which I have to slowly build the evidence for my final argument. And if you’re new to Ruined Chapel, you’re about to get a quintessential demonstration of what I mean.
Vox Lux begins with a school shooting in the year 1999. A lone gunman walks into a music class and opens fire. A 13-year-old girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is shot in the neck, and many of her classmates are killed.
Right off the bat; I have to say this opening is effective and disturbing. It’s clearly modeled on the Columbine attack, but nowadays, when we have become all too familiar with mass shootings, it evokes the horrors of many different atrocities. The setting is powerful, too; the idea of a sleepy, rundown little town being shattered by an attack on its children is… unnerving. Unnerving and all too real.
In the aftermath, we see Celeste crying with her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) in the hospital, learning, slowly, to move on her own. Finally, with Ellie’s help, she performs a song they have written together, at a church vigil. It opens with the lyrics:
Hey, turn the light on
‘Cause I’ve got no one to show me the way.
Please, I will follow
‘Cause you’re my last hope, I’ll do anything you say
This is the chorus:
So teach me. Show me all you’ve got
And in your words, I will be wrapped up.
Speak to me, you’re my last hope
And I will say nothing and listen to your love.
I’m honestly not sure what’s supposed to rhyme with what here. “Got” with “up”? Or “up” with “love”? Or is it an an A/B/B/A rhyme scheme, where “got” is supposed to rhyme with “love”, and “up” with “hope”?
At any rate, these lyrics seem generic, banal, and trite. Which, to be clear, is a compliment, since that is how most real-life pop lyrics are.
Celeste quickly catches the eye of producers, and goes off to New York City (complete with a shot of the pre-9/11 skyline) to begin recording and to meet with a publicist (Jennifer Ehle). While the publicist tries to keep the young singer from getting her hopes up too high, Celeste’s manager (Jude Law) encourages her, and reminds her, as a way to keep her confidence up during recording sessions: “Imagine you’re alone, dancing in your room.”
Celeste and Ellie travel to Stockholm, and, in a seizure-inducing sequence narrated by Willem Dafoe, begin sampling a sex, drugs, and rock-n’-roll lifestyle. (There is also an interesting aside in the narration about how Stockholm became a center for the recording industry. The economist in me loved that; though I have no idea if it’s true.)
Celeste and Ellie party too hard, earning a rebuke from the manager, who grumbles “You kids are all the same.” After that, they jet off to Los Angeles to shoot a music video, and I have to pause here to say just how much I loved the establishing shot of L.A. at night–it radiates a sinister glow while the ominous heavy metal concert growls on the soundtrack. The ensuing strobe-light sequence nearly made me sick, but it was worth it.
In spite of the manager’s earlier warnings, Celeste sleeps with a heavy metal star after attending his concert. Lying together in bed, she tells him that the gunman who shot her listened to music like her lover performs, and tells him about dream she’s had ever since the attack, about going through a tunnel and seeing lifeless bodies inside. She also says she likes performing pop music because “I don’t want people to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.”
Shortly afterward, she is seen bursting into the manager’s hotel room, to find him and Ellie sharing a bed. Celeste is horrified at this, on top of the panic she is already experiencing on hearing that a plane has hit the World Trade Center.
The narrator intones that Celeste’s loss of innocence mirrors our own. This seems like a pretty trite line–it’s the sort of cliché that gets used whenever people are writing about a period of upheaval. But keep it in mind for later. Meanwhile, Celeste films her music video, in which she and her accompanying dancers wear shiny golden masks. She soon becomes a sensation, much to her and Ellie’s delight, and exactly as the manager was so sure she would.
And so ends Act I. (Which was titled “Genesis”) Act II, “Regenesis,” begins with a title card informing us that it is now 2017, and then we see another shooting: terrorists in gold masks like those Celeste wore in her video attacking a beach resort.
The manager goes to see Celeste to tell her the news, and prepare her for a press conference to take place before the upcoming concert and debut of her new album, Vox Lux. Celeste is now 31, and is now played by Natalie Portman.
Let me pause here and address the question of why I watch and review so many Natalie Portman movies, which some readers may have been wondering about. It began simply enough when, as a Star Wars-loving 11-year-old, I saw Attack of the Clones in 2002 and developed a huge crush on Senator Amidala. That’s a pretty common story, I think; I’ve had a number of people tell me the only way to enjoy Episode II is to have a crush on a cast member.
As a result, I started to follow Portman’s career. And while the schoolboy crush may have faded after a while, I began noticing something about her choice of roles: they are wildly different from each other, and moreover, the movies she is in are wildly different from one another–and from most anything else.
And here’s the key thing: her movies always give me something to chew on. Some of them are great, some of them are awful, some of them are a mixed bag, but all of them have something unusual. As I wrote recently about Jackie: the best thing for a reviewer is something that’s just freaking weird. And Portman seems to actively seek out the weird.
Vox Lux is a case in point: just when you think you’ve got Portman pegged as an elegant, restrained actress who brings fragility and delicacy to her roles, she goes and plays a hyperactive, drug-addled, alcoholic, narcissistic pop diva with a New York accent and a foul mouth. The manic is still there, but the pixie and the dream girl, not so much.
Celeste, decked out in a punk-y hairdo and heavy make-up that makes her look much older than 31, is something of a wreck, railing at restaurant employees and sniping with journalists. Ellie has been taking care of Celeste’s teenage daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy) and has brought her to the hotel to see her mother. Celeste treats Ellie with total contempt, before marching past the paparazzi to take her daughter to lunch.
Over lunch–or rather, before lunch, since they ultimately get thrown out before they can eat–Celeste gives a rambling monologue touching on, among other things, her belief that Ellie is poisoning Albertine’s mind against her, her disgust that her daughter learned about her recent break-up from gossip magazines, and most incomprehensibly, this beauty, ostensibly about modern marketing:
“Their business model relies on their customer’s unshakable stupidity. And deep down we probably sense that–their intimate knowledge of our commitment to the lowest common denominator. It’s the official manifestation of the increasingly important urge to break with every living thing that has some connection to the past… the past reeks too much of ugly old people and death.”
In short, Celeste seems rather unhinged. This is confirmed by more background that the narrator helpfully provides, saying that she is recovering from a recent episode of heavy drinking, as well as a car accident in which she injured a pedestrian.
The narrator also informs us that Albertine has been planning to tell her mother that she has recently lost her virginity. This news causes Celeste to lash out at Ellie when she returns to the hotel, viciously berating her sister for not taking better care of Albertine. Ellie tearfully reminds Celeste that she writes her songs, and threatens to reveal that fact to the public, but as Celeste says, “In this day and age, no one will care.”
Celeste then gives a bizarre press conference, in which, after perfunctory condemnations of violence and expressions of support for the victims, she says that, like the terrorists wearing her masks, she used to believe in God, too–when she was a child. The narrator adds the gloss that she speaks like the political figures of her era.
Afterwards, she goes to her hotel room, where she finds the manager embracing Albertine. She tells him to get away from her daughter, and dispatches Albertine with a note of apology to Ellie. She seems on the edge of a breakdown, as evidenced by her comment when she turns back and is surprised to see the manager still in the room: “Jesus Christ, I almost forgot you were there!” He tells her that Albertine wanted to see her father (presumably the musician Celeste slept with back in L.A.) but that he thinks that’s a bad idea.
She and the manager then snort drugs, drink whiskey, and finally stagger out of the room in an almost comical sequence. Celeste manages to somehow find her way to the convoy of vehicles transporting her to the concert. En route, she orders her driver to stop, and pulls Albertine out to the side of the road to kneel with her, in silent prayer, for “Everyone who’s suffering right now.”
They then continue on to the concert venue, where Celeste has another meltdown over… I’m not even sure what, to be honest. The manager ends up holding her in her dressing room, telling her to ignore Ellie, who finally makes him go away, and then cradles Celeste as she sobs incoherently about being “ugly”.
This ends Act II, and now begins the Finale.
I should mention that up to this point, the film felt very low budget–lots of handheld camera shots, and dingy, grimy interiors. Not Hollywood grimy, either; but the real thing–or so it felt, anyway. It gave the film an almost documentary-like feel.
The concert at the end is clearly where they spent most of their production budget. It’s a high-tech show with elaborate special effects and lots of extras. It seemed to me like a very good representation of a pop concert–which is to say, almost unbearable, as one who has never attended such a concert, or wanted to. Dancers in sparkling catsuits, lasers and pyrotechnics, flashing words on a huge screen, all while a synthesized voice shouts unintelligible lyrics. It looked like every Super Bowl halftime show that I’ve ever had the misfortune to glimpse.
Celeste’s performance seems to be a mash-up of allusions to real-life pop stars–she calls her fans “little angels,” she performs a song called “Firecracker,” and another one called “Private Girl in a Public World.”
And then the film just ends in mid-concert, after about twenty minutes of singing and dancing. Nothing happens after. The credits roll (in total silence) and the movie’s over.
Ah… well, actually; not quite. I omitted something. But it’s a spoiler. A big one. I, unfortunately, knew this spoiler going in, and didn’t get to experience the surprise for myself. And that’s too bad, because I would have liked to have seen it without knowing everything.
Don’t make the same mistake I did. Think very carefully about whether you want to proceed beyond this point, because now we are going to get into the real meat of what Vox Lux is. If you want to skip that for now, just know that I think it’s an extremely dark film–especially the shocking violence at the beginning–and that it’s also a very, very interesting piece of social commentary, with great acting and writing. If you watch it, pay particular attention to the scene where Celeste has lunch with her daughter; it’s more important than it seems at first. Have fun!
==NOW ENTERING THE SPOILER ZONE==
What I omitted above is that, during the concert, our narrator has one more interesting piece of information for us:
Late one night at the hospital… Celeste made a maddening claim that only her sister had ever sensed to be true… Shortly after her classmate pulled the trigger, and sent her to the place between life and death… she had met the Devil, and made a deal with him in exchange for her life. He whispered her melodies, and she returned with a mission to bring great change to the next century.
And here you thought I was speaking figuratively when I said Celeste had demons to battle! “Please, I will follow / ‘Cause you’re my last hope, I’ll do anything you say,” takes on a whole new meaning now, eh?
Some people said this twist came out of left field, and I might agree, except that a little after the narrator says it, we see this shot of the manager, staring at Celeste as she performs:
(The still doesn’t convey it, but that red light is flickering in a distinctly flame-like manner.)
Let’s review some of the stuff the Manager has done:
- Repeatedly reminded Celeste: “Shut your eyes and pretend you’re in your bedroom” to prepare to sing with conviction.
- Exhibited strange, almost unnatural confidence that Celeste would become a star, to the point where he’s not even excited when she does.
- Taken Celeste and Ellie to Europe, without their parents, where they did drugs, drank and had sex.
- Introduced Celeste to the hard rocker who fathers her child.
- Cursed out studio employees who doubted Celeste’s talent.
- Apparently slept with Ellie.
- Consistently tried to separate Celeste from her sister, and later, her daughter—he tried to prevent her from seeing her alone, without security.
- Prevented Celeste’s daughter from seeing her father.
- Finally, during her big meltdown pre-concert, he holds her, telling her to pretend she’s alone while Ellie is standing right beside her.
Also, there’s that weird scene I mentioned earlier where Celeste finds Albertine and the manager in her room, and after talking to her daughter is surprised the Manager is still there. Now, you might think Celeste is just so wigged out she forgets about him—but the way the scene is shot it really feels to the viewer like he just disappears, only to reappear again when Celeste is alone, as if he’d never left.
Taken altogether, I feel justified in arguing that there is something decidedly Mephistophelean about the Manager.
Here’s another point: you may be wondering, “Why is this movie called Vox Lux?” It’s mentioned briefly that Celeste’s new album is called that, but there’s no song titled “Vox Lux” performed in the film, and it generally doesn’t seem that relevant to anything
“Vox Lux” is of course Latin—“vox” means “voice”, and “lux” means “light”. “Voice Light”–what does that mean?
I think they want it to translate as “Voice of Light,” which in proper Latin would be “Vox Lucis.” “Lucis” is just another form of “Lux.” That’s how Latin works. Cool, huh?
Here’s another one: you know how to say “bringer of light” in Latin?
What’s up with that? Well, for long and complicated reasons, the story of Satan’s fall from grace has been associated with the planet Venus, which in Latin was called “Lucifer,” and ever since the name has been associated with the Devil.
One more etymology before we get back on track: “Celeste” is French, derived from the Latin word “caelestis,” which means “heavenly.” Like “celestial” meaning the sky, or more precisely, the heavens.
Religious imagery is everywhere in Vox Lux, from the opening, when young Celeste offers to pray with the gunman just before he shoots her, right up until the concert at the end when the words “Pray” and “Prey” flicker interchangeably on the jumbotron. Celeste performs her first song at a church vigil, with a huge cross behind her, and then as an adult, goes on strange rants about her own supposed divinity.
Even the soundtrack credits reveal something interesting: alongside names like Sia, (who wrote most of Celeste’s songs) and Tchaikovsky, is the name Thomas Tallis, a 16th-century composer of Church music. The Tallis piece used in the film (I can’t tell where, exactly) is a setting of the following passage from the Bible:
If ye love me, keep my commandments.
And I will pray the Father,
and he shall give you another comforter,
that he may ‘bide with you forever;
E’en the sp’rit of truth.
It’s not obvious unless you’re looking for it, but once you know about the theological aspect of things, you start seeing it everywhere: the film is drenched with religious themes–specifically, Judeo-Christian ones. And not in that preachy, propagandistic way that Pat Prescott blogged about recently, but woven deep into the narrative.
So now we’re getting some clarity as to what kind of film Vox Lux is. It is what MAD magazine, in its parody of The Exorcist, called a “Devil Flick”: a sub-genre of horror that also includes Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen. True, there are no spinning heads and evil voices, no hypnotic Rottweilers and Etruscan cemeteries, no satanic rape scenes. But Vox Lux has school shootings and terrorist attacks. What do you think is the most plausible manifestation of evil in the world?
That’s one mystery solved. But now that we know what kind of movie it is, we need to know what it’s about. The questions are related, but not identical.
Many people have said that Vox Lux is essentially the anti-A Star Is Born. A Star is Born is about the glory of rising to fame and the tragedy of falling from celebrity status; Vox Lux is about the dark side of fame, the perils of celebrity.
If that’s the case, though, it makes Vox Lux a real niche movie. After all, most people will never be famous, so what’s the point of warning them about fame? A Star is Born makes sense as a story everyone can relate to, because it’s an invitation for people who aren’t famous to imagine they could be. But Vox Lux? If the point is “Don’t be famous,” most of us can safely say, “Mission accomplished.”
Almost every review I’ve read seems to interpret Celeste’s pact with the Devil as being a deal to give him her soul in exchange for fame. That’s how I interpreted it at first, too. But think about the narrator’s final lines again: he says she “made a deal with him in exchange for her life. He whispered her melodies, and she returned with a mission to bring great change to the next century.”
In other words, fame was the price, not the prize! Celeste didn’t make a Faustian bargain because she wanted to be a famous pop star, she just wanted to live. The Devil was the one who inserted the “famous pop star” clause into the deal.
You might argue Vox Lux is about the danger of worshipping false idols. (Again, the Biblical imagery!) But then why is it told from the perspective of the idol, instead of a deranged worshipper? The only real hint of the dark side of celebrity worship is the vague implication that the school shooter enjoyed heavy metal music. That’s pretty thin.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit to you that Vox Lux is not about fame, except as it relates to its larger theme. Nor is it about the vapidity of pop culture, celebrity worship generally, or even the psychological toll of violence, though all these things figure into it.
Vox Lux is about nothing less than the destruction of human society itself.
The scene where Celeste goes to lunch with her daughter is the key. At first, it seems like incoherent babbling; the ravings of a strung-out, washed-up star. But in fact, she is articulating the core theme of the film. Again—to save you having to scroll up:
“It’s the official manifestation of the increasingly important urge to break with every living thing that has some connection to the past… the past reeks too much of ugly old people and death.”
In the context of her bargain with the Dark Powers, this sounds very interesting. Celeste might not be a rambling alcoholic after all—she might have knowledge of cosmic changes in the zeitgeist.
I think the film begins in 1999 for more reasons than just the Columbine parallels. Back in the ‘90s, especially if you were into conspiracies, there was a lot of talk about what revolutionary, mystical changes the new millennium might bring. Game designer Warren Spector called this mood “Millennial weirdness.” Conspiracy talk show host Art Bell called it “The Quickening.”
This wasn’t the first time something like this happened, of course. Back in the 1890s in Europe, they had the concept of fin de siècle, and it produced a great deal of decadent and pessimistic art and literature. It’s probably safe to assume that because humans have ten fingers, they will always use a base ten counting system and always assign mystical significance to large round numbers.
But back to Celeste, who has more interesting table talk:
“I got a lot of people to pay. More people than you can imagine. It’s a full-time job. It’s like I’m connected to the whole world all the time. I can hear everyone in my head.”
This comes a little after Albertine informs her that she and her aunt Ellie “Don’t do phones at the table.” Celeste is connected to everyone, and it makes it hard to focus. “A vast image out of Spiritus Mundi troubles her sight,” apparently.
And yet despite this, Celeste is not connected to her own family. She barely knows her daughter. She doesn’t see or care about the father of her child. She behaves in an absolutely hateful fashion towards her sister, who has done nothing but support her. Albertine so craves a connection to her mother that she lost her virginity in order to make her pay attention to her.
Remember how I talked about how the opening scenes show the peace of Celeste’s hometown shattered? There’s something very sympathetic in how the town and its populace is portrayed—unusually so for a modern movie. Usually when you see small towns on screen, they’re portrayed as boring, or closed-minded.
And then we see young Celeste whisked off to the big cities, with ominous shots of imposing skyscrapers set to harsh, threatening music. L.A. at night just oozes menace as it sucks in young Celeste and her sister.
Mick LaSalle, a film critic with whom I almost always disagree vehemently, said that Vox Lux was a “conservative” movie. For once, he’s right. Actually, if anything, he’s seriously understating matters. It’s not just conservative, it’s practically reactionary.
When most people say “conservative,” they think of country club Republicans who want lower taxes on their capital gains, and mask it by quoting the Bible now and then. This ain’t that kind of conservatism. This is G.K. Chesterton-level conservatism, and quite possibly that is still an understatement. This is the oldest of the old in terms of traditionalism—the great cosmopolitan city corrupting the innocent small-town children.
And nowhere is the urge to break with the past more clear than in how the Manager relentlessly works to separate Celeste from her family. At every opportunity, he tries to sever her ties to her flesh-and-blood and make her his.
“Shut your eyes, Celeste.”
“You’re the only person in the room.”
That isn’t the only way that ancestral ties are destroyed, either. At one point early on, someone mentions that the shooter killed his grandparents as well, before attacking his classmates. Everywhere in Vox Lux, the traditional structures of families, churches, schools, and small communities are under attack by the pressures of the modern world.
The moment when Ellie succeeds in making the Manager go away and starts comforting her sister is the most emotionally powerful scene in the film, and made me wonder if it was hinting at a possibility of redemption for Celeste. But the cuts at the end, between Celeste’s performance of her cheery-yet-creepy pop anthems, and the sympathetic faces of her sister and daughter contrasting with the hungry expression of the Manager, suggest otherwise.
And, as the narrator told us early on, Celeste’s experience is meant to mimic “ours”—meaning, presumably, civilization’s, and perhaps humanity’s as a whole. All the old forms of human relationship are being driven out by the power of the New to constantly feed, but never sate, our immediate appetites.
The best horror, I’ve always said, relies on what is implied rather than what is shown. By that standard, Vox Lux is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. What it implies about society is so bone-chillingly horrifying, and yet so plausible: that mass media technology, celebrity worship, greed, and humanity’s endless capacity for cruelty, are metastasizing out of control, devouring the world and destroying our families, our neighbors, and our own ability to feel empathy.