'Vox Lux' Finds Natalie Portman Grappling With The Dark Side Of Pop Music [TIFF]

Brady Corbet teams with Natalie Portman for Vox Lux, a strange saga split into two, showing the youth and adult life of a troubled pop star. Hard to decipher and loaded with omens and symbols, Vox Lux doesn't quite work, but it makes one hell of an impression.The anti-A Star Is Born, Vox Lux is the latest from actor-turned-director Brady Corbet, a beautiful dark twisted fantasy about the price of fame. The film kicks off with a bang, literally – a shocking school shooting unfolds with horrifying reality as a student waltzes into a high school music class and proceeds to open fire. One of his few surviving victims is Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), who gets shot in the neck but miraculously recovers.In the wake of the shooting, Celeste and her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) compose a song about the tragedy, and perform it at a memorial service for the dead. The song goes viral, and before long, Celeste has a manager (Jude Law), and thrust into the whirlwind life of a pop star, recording a dance move, learning dance moves, saying goodbye to her youth.Jump-cut 18 years later, Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) is now older, bitter and an absolute wreck. We learn that she drank so much she actually went blind in one eye at one point. She also now has a daughter of her own (played by Raffey Cassidy in a duel role), and her relationship with her sister – once so close and loving – is now acidic and cruel. Vox Lux is two movies in one. The first is the story of Celeste as a teen suddenly turning into a pop sensation. The second is the story of Celeste after fame has had her way with her. She's blossomed into a Trumpian figure – prone to saying ridiculous, poorly thought-out things to get a rise or reaction out of people. When these words backfire, she doesn't understand why. "Journalists can be so mean," she sobs at one point. She just wants to entertain, and in turn be lavished with praise. "That's what I love about pop music," she says. "I don't want people to have to think too hard."A sonic nightmare, booming with a terrifying and powerful score from Scott Walker (with songs by Sia), Vox Lux is a living, breathing entity – a unique phantasmagoria of death and music. Each section of the film is kicked off with a burst of violence – the school shooting at the beginning, and a terrorist attack on a beach for the second half. It's as if these are burnt offerings; human sacrifices in order to appease the dark elder gods of fame.Cassidy is quite good as the young Celeste (and Celeste's daughter) – the actress takes great pains to alter her own voice to match Portman's cadence and rhythm. Unfortunately – and it pains me to say this – Portman's performance is a bit of a misfire. I think Portman is a phenomenal actress – I'm one of the people who thought she unquestionably deserved to win Best Actress for her work in Jackie – but she seems wrong for this part. Corbet originally cast Rooney Mara in the role, only to have the actress drop out, and one can't help but wonder what she would've done with the role instead.Portman's Staten Island accent is too severe, too mannered. It never once sounds natural. She's also not the best dancer, which makes the lengthy sequences where she's performing big numbers a little awkward and clumsy. It's not a bad performance – it just never seems in line with the rest of the film.The true standout here is director Corbet. With this, and his previous film A Childhood of a Leader, he's signaling himself as a filmmaker to pay close attention to. He crafts dark, dreamy, morbidly humorous sagas. The director has a gift for blending classical aesthetics with a modernist bent. Vox Lux comes complete with a droll, winking narration courtesy of Willem Dafoe that recalls the biting voice over from Barry Lyndon.Working with cinematographer Lol Crawley, Corbet conjures up haunting, glittery imagery – dark roads lit by solitary street lights; stages exploding with strobes; piles of blood-drenched bodies; hyperkinetic montages of wild debauchery. There are also frequent flashes of religious imagery – when Celeste performs her first song in a church, Corbet frames her standing in front of a cross. Later, during a press conference, she proclaims herself to be the "new religion."Vox Lux is uneven – the first half is much better than the second – but Corbert manages to bring it all back home with a finale worthy of an encore. A sudden reveal puts the entire film in a complete different perspective, and brought a wicked smile to my face. I wasn't entirely in step with Vox Lux's beat, yet by the time the credits rolled, I knew this was a film I wouldn't soon forget. Whatever Bradley Corbert does next, I'm there./Film rating: 7.5 out of 10