Vox Lux
Natalie Portman stars in "Vox Lux"

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By Eleanor Ringel Cater

“She did possess that that proverbial something,” says narrator Willem Dafoe about the rock-star protagonist of “Vox Lux.”

The movie possesses that “proverbial something,” too, but whether that “something” is something you’d enjoy is debatable.

The film begins with a jolt. You could even say a bang. Literally.

Vox Lux
Vox Lux image

We’re in band class at a small Staten Island school in 1999, and the genial teacher is welcoming her students back from some sort of break. Then the door opens and in walks a crazy with a gun. As her classmates huddle helplessly in the back of the room, 13-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) tries talking to the gunman. “At least let everyone else go, and I’ll stay here with you,” she pleads.

Her courage is rewarded with a life-threatening bullet lodged in her neck and a long stay in rehab where she learns to walk again. Asked to speak at a memorial service for her classmates, she and her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) instead sing a song they’ve written.

The tune becomes a national anthem. And thus a pop diva is born.

Celeste travels to Sweden where she’s properly launched thanks to her somewhat sleazy manager (Jude Law) and a record company publicist (Jennifer Ehle) who massages her image.

Vox Lux
Natalie Portman stars in “Vox Lux”
Natalie Portman stars in “Vox Lux”

In other words, a star is manufactured.

We then skip ahead 17 or so years – the adult Celeste (Natalie Portman) is now a jaded and temperamental star with a daughter of her own (also played by Cassidy).  She’s about to perform a homecoming concert, but the day is shadowed by her usual demons – ego, alcohol, etc. And one more: there’s been a massacre at a beach resort in Croatia, and the terrorists were wearing iconic masks from one of Celeste’s earliest and most famous videos.

The film is divided into three acts: the school violence; Celeste’s rise to stardom; the day of her concert, which includes unhappy encounters with the press and fans; and the concert itself.

vox lux
Scene from “Vox Lux” movie
Scene from “Vox Lux” movie

We are told by Dafoe that that Portman is “the prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present,” which, I guess, is meant to explain why she’s such an uber bitch. But writer/director Brady Corbet doesn’t let us see Celeste’s transformation. One minute she’s a wide-eyed innocent (per Dafoe: “Kind and full of grace and at least she wrote her own lyrics”); the next she’s a total mess, a selfish and unrepentant harridan who speaks with a harsh New Yawk honk.

Portman’s performance is, in many ways, incredibly daring; at times her unrelieved nastiness recalls Jennifer Jason Leigh in “The Hateful Eight.” But she’s been given no grounding, no context. So her work also unbalances the picture.

But if I were as good as Portman and given as little as she’s been to work with, I’d probably swing for the fences, too. “Vox Lux” is a confused and unsatisfying attempt to comment on where we’ve been and where we are, put in pure pop culture terms. Interesting idea, but nihilism has rarely been this boring.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE...

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