* * * * 1/2 (out of five)
I won’t soon forget the first time I saw Brady Corbet’s 2015 debut The Childhood of a Leader. Baroque, operatic, mesmerizing, intense, disorienting, moody and quietly terrifying, the film, which never ultimately got released in Australia and remains barely seen, deeply affected me. It gave me that intense thrill that a critic or film lover gets when they hear a powerful new directorial voice. It also gave me the chills. Here was a filmmaker who knew what got under my skin, through his idiosyncratic use of music, image, mood. The film really spoke to me.
So too does Vox Lux, Corbet’s far more commercial follow-up, which is not to say it’s commercial at all. Corbet has carried over his unnerving style to a straight up portrait of a modern pop singer, and the seeming clash of style to subject is part of what gives the film its unearthly pleasure. We’re watching an origin story of a Lady Gaga / Sia / Britney Spears, but it feels like a horror movie.
It’s all quite brilliant and unbelievably entertaining, while being thoroughly uncompromising. The first half of the film covers the younger years of pop singer Celeste, in this section played by Raffey Cassidy, as a traumatic childhood event gives birth to her talent as a performer. Corbet’s intense use of music and imagery here echo his work on Childhood of a Leader, keeping us unmoored and on edge, even as Celeste’s manager is introduced, and played by Jude Law, as essentially a comic character. The second half, featuring Natalie Portman as Celeste, all takes place in a single day, and shifts tonal gears, at times presenting as flat-out comedy, albeit in a gothic vein.
All the performances are sensational. Cassidy and Portman are superb versions of each other/Celeste, working in tandem to create the singer’s unique voice and particularly her physicality, which is deeply informed by events of the film. Portman’s use of her own body is exquisite, precise and alarming; her growing body of exceptional performances, including this, Black Swan and Jackie, really do place her in the very front ranks of working screen actors. She’s outrageously good. As for Cassidy, she and Corbet pull off a coup de theatre that made my jaw drop and which I will leave for you to discover; all I will say is that she deserves awards for her work here. They both do. They all do.
The songs, written by Sia herself, are superb, and Cassidy and Portman do their own singing. Celeste is a major talent and how these actresses live up to that expectation boggles the mind. Portman famously prepared for Black Swan by learning ballet, and she’s learned an entirely new universe of performance here. It all pays off, riotously, wonderfully, exuberantly, brilliantly, with integrity, grace and skill. If she toured as Celeste, I’d want to see it.
This is the first great film of 2019. Exceptional.