Venice has seen its profile rise in recent years after successfully launching a series of major Oscar winners. Such collateral perks aside, a film festival should first and foremost be about showcasing films which have something to say and/or have found a new way to say it. Brady Corbet’s VOX LUX is both of those things.
As with SUSPIRIA, I went into the film knowing next to nothing and I recommend you to do the same. Suffice to say it’s a work of great style, sharp observations and unexpected tonal shifts – a biographical drama about a fictional pop star that examines, questions popular culture with elements of horror and comedy. It confirms Corbet as a vital and genuinely special voice in filmmaking.
[Spoilers ahead] The film is more or less evenly split between two parts (“Genesis” at the turn of the millennium & “Regenesis” set in 2017), plus a shocking prelude and a musical finale. Celeste, played in the first half by Raffey Cassidy, is a small-town Christian girl with a penchant for performing and writing music with her sister Elli (Stacy Martin). After surviving a school massacre possibly triggered by the killer’s unrequited love for her, she sings at the nationally broadcast memorial service and her song becomes an anthem. A big-shot manager (Jude Law) signs her and takes the sisters to Europe to record (and party), exposing them to a lifestyle they have never known. When we meet the grown and successful Celeste again (Natalie Portman) after another terrorist act, she’s a changed person with very different problems.
Those familiar with Corbet’s striking feature debut THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER, which won numerous prizes here in Venice three years ago, would recognize in this film’s foreboding, eerily atmospheric first half many of the same attributes. His direction is once again underscored by an unnerving ability to tap into the spontaneity of madness. Whether there’s physical violence involved or not, the grayish, spooky imagery spells a latent threat that you just can’t shake. Add to that the counterintuitive, often alarming use of music, and even the most harmless scenario could take on a dimension of dread that’s tremendously evocative.
The more comedic-leaning second half loses some of that momentum but remains thrillingly watchable, as we follow foul-mouthed superstar Celeste getting prepped for a press conference and concert later that night. At 31, she’s confident, crass and cynical AF. Mass shootings in apparent tribute to her no longer ruffle her (literal) feathers. Her daughter (also played by Cassidy) from a teenage fling comes visit looking for a heart-to-heart but gets some seriously inappropriate life lessons instead. And there’s more resentment and rage to go around for Elli, the manager, journalists, random fans and maybe even the world at large. It’s hard to imagine she just embodied Jackie Kennedy two years ago but Portman thrives in this live-wire part of a bitter, histrionic diva. A creation of myth, projection and collective worship.
DP Lol Crawley did amazing work here creating the film’s gritty, ultra-realistic look that somehow also dazzles with a touch of gothic horror. Scott Walker’s score, while not as insanely combative as the one on THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER, terrorizes and mesmerizes all the same. But at the end of the day, VOX LUX is still very much Corbet’s baby. If the film’s first half is him showing off his remarkable stylistic command, taking us through the making of a pop icon via a whirlwind ride of trauma and excess, then the second half is him asking us to take a hard look at the mess that’s left behind. And when we see Celeste, mom of teenage child, dancing and lip-synching to hits of yesteryear in the rousing finale, drenched in the outpour of love and hysteria from everyone but her family, there might be just as much to ponder about her as about the rest of us.
Meanwhile, the Netflix-produced competition entry 22 JULY proved to be equally thought-provoking, if in a completely different way. Dramatizing the terrorist attacks in Oslo and the neighboring island of Utøya on that fateful date in 2011 as well as the ensuing trial of the right-wing radical Anders Behring Breivik, Oscar-nominated director Paul Greengrass’ film is technically accomplished, emotionally engaging while leaving plenty of moral questions to be debated.
As I’ve noted earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival, where the same attacks were depicted in the one-take spectacle U – JULY 22, it’s not easy to judge the artistic value of a work like this in a moral vacuum. The wound is still fresh and it is one that very much symptomizes the ongoing cultural-political unrest seen everywhere in our world. Is it ok to go ahead and turn it into a movie?
Unlike Norwegian director Erik Poppe’s film, which was told entirely from the perspective of the students hunted down on Utøya and never showed the killer’s face, Breivik (played by Anders Danielsen Lie) is prominently featured in 22 JULY. We see him getting ready for the attacks, calmly carrying them out and later delivering his perverse manifesto during the very public trial. Is any of this ok? Is it offering murderously bigoted world views the glamorized stage of a Hollywood production? Are we as viewers abusing the memory of the victims? Ditto the treatment of Breivik’s attorney or Norway’s Prime Minister in the film, which constantly begs the question of fact or drama?
No easy answers to be found here but let me tell you, not five minutes into the film and I am weeping. Call it manipulative or exploitative, but Greengrass knows how to create a visceral cinematic experience. The way he shoots and cuts, so effortlessly dynamic and real, puts you right in the middle of the tragedy. And when you see innocent children being slaughtered like animals, their loved ones devastated by any news or absence of news, or even the relaxed conviction of someone so irreversibly distorted by hate, you can’t help but weep.
I feel hesitant to put a grade on a movie like this but the bottom line is, I believe people should watch it. It’s an intense experience that may well contain factual/moral fallacies, but even its faults are important, pressingly timely food for thought.