Brady Corbet’s second feature is an oblique and eccentric take on gun violence in America, with a particular focus on the accumulating legacy of school shootings. The film is divided into two halves, the first of which focuses on Celeste Montgomery, a high school student played by Raffey Cassidy, who becomes a pop star after surviving a shooting at New Brighton in upstate New York. With the support of her manager, played by Jude Law, Celeste becomes the voice of her generation, providing an outlet for millions of high school students living under the mounting threat of gun violence. The second part of the film follows Celeste in the present, where she is played by Natalie Portman, as she comes to terms with a new generation of gun violence, much of which has happened at the kinds of concerts she headlines. During this second half, Celeste’s own daughter Albertine is now played by Cassidy, suggesting a connection between the past and present that no amount of musical reinvention can ever assuage or heal. Throughout both these sections, Willem Dafoe provides a voiceover that follows and analyses Celeste’s movement through stardom.
In telling that story, Corbet adopts an auteurist style, and insists upon his auteurism in quite a self-conscious way. In its original incarnation, auteurism meant authorship, and Corbet is continually reminding us here that he is both the director and writer, whether in the form of Dafoe’s voiceover, which is so wordy and convoluted that it is impossible to follow, or in the writerly and novelistic style of the script itself, which frequently gets bogged down in long passages of exposition and pontification. The credits roll not once but twice, at the beginning and at the end of the film, and are delivered in a refined and elegant font, both times ending with the accreditation of Corbet himself as writer and director. The film is also divided into three acts, each of which is accompanied by an epigrammatic label, and each of which is styled in roman numerals, giving the sense of a filmed play, or at least a film that aspires to the gravitas and the nobility of theatre at its most commanding of cultural capital.
The most interesting of all those innovations is Corbet’s decision to roll the credits at the start of the film. This occurs immediately after the shooting, as the ambulances are rushing survivors to hospital, and suggests that this where a film about school shooting would normally stop. Coming at this point, the opening credits, which flow down from the top of the screen, feel like a memorial for the victims, and have a touch of finality about them, making the subsequent film feel quite surprising, like a step into uncharted artistic territory. One of the broader points that Vox Lux makes is that it is remarkably difficult to represent the full reach and significance of school shootings within American culture as a whole. By starting his film where most films would end, Corbet encapsulates this dilemma quite eloquently, presenting his film as an experiment in representation as much as anything else.
To that end, Corbet also suffuses the prologue, which takes place in and around New Brighton, with huge swathes of darkness and absence. Usually there are one or two pinpricks of light to anchor these massive voids, but these are so small that they end up making the emptiness feel even more disorienting and disempowering. While there are flickers and flecks of noise to orient us, they are usually situated at the very cusp of audibility, while the adults who might provide a source of stability are either kept out of the frame, or disposed of early in the shooting. The cumulative effect is one of representative finitude, in which even the most visceral parts of the shooting remain cocooned in a quietness, emptiness and blankness that somehow remains immune to the noise and chaos of the shooting, and just as resistant to subsequent efforts to really process or revisit them.
That representative void is a promising start to the film, and a powerful challenge for Corbet to set himself, since it suggests that school shootings are inherently resistant to cinematic treatment. Unfortunately, Corbet doesn’t do anything especially striking to address this challenge, suffusing the rest of the film with a blankness and blandness that allows long passages to pass without much in the way of tone or atmosphere. Within that torpor, two types of scenes tend to ensue – either scenes that riff endlessly in an impoverished ambience, or scenes that subsist on interminable and inert sequences of “combative” dialogue that decelerate the action with every attempt they make to speed it up. Eventually, those two registers dovetail with Corbet’s own literary and auteurist aspirations to make a film that feels almost unbearably self-regarding and solipsistic, and that attributes the motivations of shooters, and the impact on victims, to the blandest of psychological profiles.
The most engaging parts tend to be the musical sequences, even if these can’t quite carry the film as they did for Black Swan, Suspiria or any of the other neo-musicals that have hit the big screen in recent years. For Celeste, pop music becomes a way of regaining ownership of her body, and being embodied in public space, after almost being killed by the shooter. With a bullet fragment lodged in her spine, she could be paralysed at any moment, and still hasn’t recovered full bodily comfort as an adult, suffering from perpetual back pains and spasms that force her to turn to drugs and alcohol for relief. This condition also gives her a tetchy, restless, displaced relation to her own body, since she is continually yearning to escape it, but also aware that any bodily movement that is too unregulated might end up dislodging the bullet and paralyzing her completely. In that situation, Corbet provides a quite poignant and powerful vision of the impact of school shootings on the student body, in the broadest sense – on the bodies of victims, on the bodies of survivors, and on the bodies of all students forced to question whether they might one day be victim or survivor.
Equally powerfully, Celeste’s journey makes it clear that this re-embodiment is a process, rather than a product, and can never be fully complete. For all that she defines her body against her experience at New Brighton, her aesthetic becomes complicit in it, and in the broader situation of school shootings and mass shootings across the globe. Not only does her angular and jagged aesthetic recall the gothy fashion of the shooter, but one of her music videos is chopped and spliced by a group of terrorists operating in Croatia, who fuse it with footage of them gunning down a beach of tourists, in an incident roughly based upon the Tunisia hotel attack in 2015. Corbet thus suggests that the trauma and prospect of school shootings exceeds the legibility of the body, and our capacity to render our own bodies legible, partly because school shootings seem to come from such a visceral place – both personally and culturally – but also because they have such a sudden impact on bodies.
Like Elephant, then, Vox Lux is aware that school shootings can’t be properly processed within classical cinematic language, since classical cinematic language presupposes a detachment from our own bodies and sensoria that school shootings rupture and implode. Whereas Elephant turns to digital gaming as a post-cinematic vocabulary for considering shootings, Vox Lux turns to music video, a medium founded on audiovisual discontinuities, which Corbet seems to consider the best venue for capturing the schismatic impacts of the New Brighton shooting upon Celeste’s body in particular. To a certain extent, this corresponds with changes in Celeste’s own body of work, which starts off in a singer-songwriter mode, but soon evolves into avant-pop songs swathed in electronic feedback. Both Sia and Scott Walker worked on the soundtrack, which gives a sense of the spectrum of styles covered, along with the way in which Celeste’s voice changes over her long career.
Like Elephant, too, Vox Lux seems prescient that terrorism is increasingly converging with the media that are used to represent and aestheticise it. Every effort that Celeste makes to comment upon the New Brighton shooting turns out to be complicit in the shooting, at least artistically. More disturbingly, her anti-violence aesthetic is co-opted by subsequent terrorists, such as the Croatian shooters, who incorporate her music videos into their own music videos and then distribute them on the internet. What makes terrorism so terrifying, Corbet suggests, is its capacity to command media, and to remain at the cutting edge of media, thereby staying one step ahead of efforts to contain and manage it. For Celeste, only two responses are viable – to aim for an “experience as relentless and addictive as possible” in her own music, and to imbue her celebrity status with a revelatory quality, a “new faith” whose purity depends on her own voice, and so cannot ever be truly repurposed by terror.
As a result, Celeste feels especially indebted to Madonna, just as the film plays as a kind of thought-experiment in how Madonna would have looked if her career had peaked during the school shooting crisis, rather than during the AIDS crisis and LGBT rights, the two social causes with which she is most associated. Pairing Madonna and school shootings in this way reveals something that was completely disavowed by Elephant – namely, that school shootings have become kitsch in American popular culture, partly because of how strenuously popular culture has to work to avoid the fact that they are motivated by psychopathic enjoyment above all else. Any representation, however kitsch, is preferable to that traumatic fact, and Corbet takes us on a tour of the kinds of kitsch that are used to repress shooter enjoyment, producing a bombastic visual field that often plays as a parody shooter narrative as much as a “serious” or “highbrow” examination of it as a social malaise.
Unfortunately, that bombastic style is all too often paired with a half-boiled screenplay, meaning that Vox Lux gradually descends into a generic rock star narrative, and an old-fashioned critique of celebrity that belies the sophistication of its opening premise. For a brief moment, it’s really powerful to see a film about an adult survivor of a school shooting, and to realise that the first generation of survivors are now in their mid-thirties. But the performance from Portman is so broad (there’s a bit of a Fran Drescher vibe) and the film becomes so pontificating that it’s hard to really stay invested as Celeste’s career progresses, especially once Corbet starts to broaden his palette beyond school shootings to America as a whole. Full of “topical” touchstones, these later scenes reminded me of James Franco in their desperation to be relevant, to speak to a zeitgeist, and to be the voice of a generation.
It’s a bit of a relief, then, when Corbet cuts back the dialogue for a visceral closing sequence, in which Celeste gets drunk and high before a big concert, but then pulls herself together before heading out on stage. In a nauseating and abject transformation, Celeste goes from a quivering heap to a disciplined dancer, recapitulating the refashioning of her body in the wake of the school shooting. As a result, this is the only part of the film that really feels commensurate to the opening scenes, but the power of this finale is limited, largely because none of the songs that Celeste sings live up to her futuristic aesthetic, nor to what you might expect from a collaboration of Sia and Scott Walker. In the end, she’s a fairly traditional pop star, unable to contort her body and style into a surreal enough combination to ever quite reclaim her body as her own in the wake of the New Brighton shooting. That’s certainly powerful conceptually, but even that power starts to wane with the blandness of the songs, since Vox Lux ends up as a concert film, ending with about twenty minutes of footage that feels culled from a much longer Portman performance . With so promise buried beneath the weight of his own pretentions, Corbet is left with nothing to do but solipsistically reroll the opening credits, this time with a totally unearned dedication to Jonathan Demme. It’s a frustrating end to a film with such promise, partly because it’s so hard to even enjoy the promise on its own terms, capping what finally feels like an idea for a film more than a fully-realised film itself, even or especially as it insists on its artistic flourish at every opportunity.