Natalie Portman Takes the Stage as a Broken Pop Icon in Darkly Alluring ‘Vox Lux’

Vox Lux” imagines the dark and tragic lives behind the bubblegum lyrics of glossy pop. Actor turned director Brady Corbet is a mere 30 years old, yet he has a unique and interesting style. You sense he is still finding his voice, but there is never a dull moment here. Corbet is also part of that generation that came of age under the shadow of Britney Spears. His celebrity creation in this film, played with grit and fury by Natalie Portman, is both a scarred individual and an icon personifying her era.

The film opens in the early 2000s as a young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) finds herself caught in a school shooting that nearly kills her. When she performs a song during a televised memorial for the victims, she becomes a sensation and is soon under the care of a slick manager (Jude Law). Along with her sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), Celeste travels to Europe, tastes life outside of her more conservative roots and records music that makes her rich and famous. Fast forward to 2017 and Celeste (now played by Portman) is a pop icon living in a silent hangover that has a tendency to explode at times. She’s on tour, but generating money is harder now with the digital revolution and Eleanor is essentially an official guardian for her daughter Albertine (Cassidy). When terrorists carry out a mass killing wearing masks taken from Celeste’s latest music video, the public pressure and media storm threaten to push the pop singer over the final edge.

Brady Corbet is a young director with unique interests tethered to a natural filmmaker’s talent. His previous film, “The Childhood of a Leader,” explored the roots of European fascism and other themes from the vantage point of a child witnessing the creation of the Treaty of Versailles. With “Vox Lux” Corbet is referencing the buzzwords and aesthetic of 2000s pop music to also dig into the darker recesses of contemporary culture. Sounds like a stretch? Not so much when you consider how celebrities are now walking personifications of what people desire or want to buy. When we read about Britney Spears’s classic meltdown or Kanye West saying bizarre things in the White House, that’s part of what Corbet is getting at with this portrait. The opening scene might seem like a risky gamble, but in a jagged sort of way it makes sense. The threat of public violence and the lust for celebrity are such a part of the national psyche that inevitably the two will meet. Some other cultural references lack more subtly and don’t gel as well, such as teenage Celeste on a treadmill listening to news of the Elian Gonzalez raid, or her running into her sister’s room to tell her 9/11 has taken place. The satirical edge works better in the Portman sections, when she delivers press statements calling herself a new religion which shames the fanaticism of terrorists.

Much of the success of this material is based on Portman herself. Celeste is one of her great recent roles. “Vox Lux” is in essence a fictional backstage movie. The plot revolves around spending time with Celeste as she balances the demands of being a cottage industry with her own personal demons and commitments. Portman evokes a personality with a big ego fueled by success, but hiding sensitive scars within. Celeste tries to escape into a diner to have some alone time with Albertine, but the manager wants a picture, Celeste loses her temper and decides they should leave. Portman plays the scene with a great swirl of emotions, zig-zagging from sweet to mature to vulnerable and proud. Unlike the typical pop or rock star biopic where the decadent lifestyle of the famous is sensationalized, here Portman is trapped in a kind of slow motion meltdown. There’s nothing terribly romantic about the drugs or drinking, she never chugs a fancy bottle or snorts cocaine from an exotic mirror. She asks a waiter to hide her white wine in a plastic cup, and when she gets high it’s in a rather pathetic moment of self-loathing involving Jude Law’s manager. She acts entitled, but not with flash, more like with the air of someone who achieved wealth very young and has become used to the perks. She will finally throw a tantrum in a dressing room, not like a diva, but almost like a spoiled kid who also never recovered from a past trauma. Portman feels so real we wonder how much of her own experience, as someone who has been famous since adolescence, was put into the performance.

Corbet’s visual and technical approach is sharp and immersive. The music score by Scott Walker is an intense counterweight to the movie’s cold, electronic pop songs by Sia. The cinematography by Lol Crawley has some of the same gloss as Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born,” but the effect is that we get the visual slickness to decorate a bleak vision. There is a pop concert near the end that is brilliant in its dark evocation of a Spears-like show. The choreography is pure teen pop cheese. The lyrics are brilliantly bad (“my heart is like a house beat”). It all seems so artificial when compared to everything we have experienced with Celeste backstage.

“Vox Lux” has the makings of a great movie, but it ends as just a very good one. Corbet is still finding his voice, the first act goes on too long and Portman’s Celeste is the only character that feels truly fleshed out. But this is never a boring or uninteresting film, with moments that are riveting.  One hopes Corbet will direct again soon. Here he gets close to the dark heart of pop, finding the tears hidden beneath the lyrics.

Vox Lux” opens Dec. 7 in select theaters.