Best known as a 19th century tragic play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust has made its way on screen a number of times. Sometimes it’s an explicit retelling, like with Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, and other times it’s simply an reference to the tale, as with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, which explores the Faustian narrative through the eyes of Mia Farrow’s Rosemary, whose husband has sold her womb to the Devil instead of his soul.
The tale of Faust, or in this case pop star Celeste, is bewitchingly depicted in Vox Lux, Brady Corbet’s sophomore feature following The Childhood of a Leader. Labelled “A Twenty-First Century Portrait,” the film begins with a school shooting in 1999 that leads into an exploration of
a Celeste in two acts, split by nearly two decades. 1999 and 2017 may seem like wildly different eras, but the film ties them together in every way.
Vox Lux’s first half features Raffey Cassidy as Celeste, covering her rise to stardom after surviving a gunshot to the neck and performing an original song at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting. Natalie Portman takes over as the character in the back half (with Cassidy switching over to be her daughter) to showcase a day in the life of Celeste, preparing for a massive concert and dealing with a terrorist attack that featured a mask from one of her early music videos.
Her life is aided along by her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin), her publicist Josie (Jennifer Ehle), and her nameless manager (Jude Law), who couldn’t serve as a better stand-in for Mephistopheles, aiding in Celeste’s ascent to Pop Icon. For better or worse, each of these individuals distinctly impacts everything in Celeste’s life, from her drug habits to her ability to engage with the press to the very lyrics of her music. And if Corbet’s structure sounds grand, it’s because the film has ambitions of being so.
For a film that features more than one shooting, spans multiple decades and countries, inserts bombastic shots of New York City and its bold architecture, and climaxes with the kind of pop concert—featuring a memorable collection of original Sia tunes—that sells out in a minute nowadays, Vox Lux has a pretty narrow point of view, entirely tied to Celeste’s perspective. It’s an odd character study though, one that doesn’t offer any easy answers for the behaviors of its character and is just as interested in exploring pop music as a whole rather than limiting itself to one woman.
Instead it posits that, as a sort of stand-in for artists like Lady Gaga—addressing her fans as her “little angels” instead of “little monsters”—she is prone to getting lost in the masquerade that is being a Pop Star. There’s an air of universality to the whole thing, not because we can identify as her, but because all of the things that happen to her are just another day in the life of what we witness in the 21st century media landscape. Like any number of celebrities (save folks like Madonna who have been rather skillfully navigating controversy their whole career), Celeste in 2017 comes across as combative in both interviews and real life, but her concerts still sell out. She complains, knowing that whatever shit she puts out will do well and that voice-acting and touring will pay the bills, but as the stories have told throughout time, there’s a certain emptiness that comes with dealing with the devil.
A voiceover by Willem Dafoe that borders on menacing, narrating happenings both on- and off-screen for Vox Lux in a matter-of-fact tone, and a sparse but effectively haunting and memorable score by Scott Walker punctuate the lows of living as Celeste. Cassidy and Portman are mirror images of each other; the former a young woman who strays further from her religious upbringing and deeper into an industry that has no place for innocence, and the latter proving that she is still the same demanding yet insecure young woman who remains unsure of her identity.
While many have accused the film of being empty provocation, there’s something to be said about the blunt honesty with which Corbet looks at pop music. Where a film like A Star Is Born features a protagonist that is inherently dismissive of it, Vox Lux is truly invested in how pop music functions as salvation for many, even if it leads to damnation for one particularly jaded individual—performing her own massive show as though she’s on auto-pilot, every bit of choreography perfectly acted out without the liveliness we’d expect from a star of her presumed caliber.
Celeste lives for the applause and Corbet knows that a star needs her audience as much as the audience needs her. Pop is the key to the soul, with a concert serving as a church where teenagers can experience pure unabashed joy and a sister and daughter can finally see sincerity in the eyes of their loved one, adapting her life into bop after bop for a packed house.