When the credits finished rolling on Vox Lux, the first thing I said was this: Vox Lux is a lot of movie. It describes itself as “a 21st century portrait,” and it seems to be both a portrait of a person in the 21st century, and a portrait of the 21st century itself.
Natalie Portman plays a pop star named Celeste, who now plays to 30,000-seat arenas, though a decent portion of the movie is spent showing the beginning of her career, in her mid-teens, at the turn of the century. I don’t usually go for big, showy performances, and here, Portman’s is huge. But: it’s also one of the best I’ve seen from anyone in years. Portman’s Celeste is brash, neurotic, self-absorbed, and magnetic. She’s the product of severe unresolved trauma and a culture that actively rewards narcissism. And at the same time, though it seems she can’t help herself, she appears entirely self-aware: she knows she’s performing and she knows that’s what we want from her. She may be a wreck, but that’s what drives attention.
Vox Lux, as a movie, reflects all of this. It’s audacious, sometimes shocking, frustrating, even maddening. It’s erratic and often decidedly unsubtle. And, side-by-side with that, it’s mesmerizing, nuanced, enthralling, whimsical, clever, and heartbreaking. The movie makes us active participants, often forcing us to do the work to fill in missing details, and it’s full of outstanding acting—the young actress Raffey Cassidy’s work is nearly as accomplished in its understatement as Natalie Portman’s performance is outsized.
If Vox Lux is a portrait of this 21st century, it’s a messy one. But, of course it is. We’re cursed to live in interesting times. One thing you can’t say about any of it is that it’s boring.
This review originally aired on December 20, 2018.