There is perhaps no film that has come out this year more polarizing than Brady Corbet's Vox Lux; it doesn't just depict trauma but leaves the viewer feeling personally traumatized, gutted—or, "carved out," as Corbet himself described it to me recently. Taking place over the course of 17 years, but in two discrete time frames, Vox Lux opens with the teenaged Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), who endures a horrific act of violence, and then embarks on a pop music career, to when she's an adult (Natalie Portman), with a teenage daughter of her own (also Cassidy). Adult Celeste, though world-famous, is still processing the effects of that original trauma, as well as creating more trauma pretty much wherever she goes.
There are few moments in the film that don't make you want to squirm in your seat, avert your eyes, think about something, anything, else; it's an aggressively honest—at times just aggressive—depiction of American life, of the violent world in which our children are growing up, one soundtracked by the computer-enhanced voices of performers whose art is their self-mythology, who are propped up by the countless invisible people who are doing all the work.
Below, I speak with Corbet and Portman about the film, what it says about pop music and America, and why we should care about any of it.
One of the most striking things in this film is that it's centered around the trauma of children—first Celeste, and then, in a sense, also that of her own daughter—but there's a real absence of true parent figures. Why was it important to leave those roles empty?
Brady Corbet: It was important to establish that they were neither good nor bad parents. There are some parents that are just parents. So they're not important in the first 20 minutes of the film... the girls' father sits out of frame, so there's a strong suggestion that they are not important to the story or possibly to the characters. But I wanted to make the jump from them living at home with their parents to them suddenly being under Jude's wing. Quite brutally it just happens, because it often does happen that way.
The idea is also to evoke the possibility of causality throughout the story, but never really land on any one thing. There's a great thing in [Albert] Camus' The Stranger, which is that a character explains that the reason that he committed a murder is because it was really hot out that day and he was feeling a little agitated, and he got some sweat in his eyes, and so he pulled the trigger and then he pulled the trigger again and again, all because of the weather. And I think that about characters, that it's not one thing—it's everything that leads them up to a defining moment. But I like the idea also that the character is this sort of, you know, avatar for the country. And that the country is young and naive and has become a slightly brutalized, more embellished, absurd version of itself in the last 20 years, especially. So, there were a lot of thoughts.
I feel like that refusal to place blame on any one person for why things eventually play out the way they do is reflected at a later point when a journalist tries to get Celeste to make a connection between herself and an act of terrorism, but the real question is: Who cares? It doesn't matter because everything matters and nothing matters. It shows how much we get distracted by motivation instead of trying to actually address what's already happening.
BC: The film is absolutely about how it means everything and nothing. Even when I watched the film for the very first time—when I watched it from the beginning to the end—it left me feeling a little carved out, you know, which is a strange experience to craft for a viewer. Because it's exhilarating at the end, but it's also... it does make you feel like you've sort of been through something.
Did you know from the very beginning that pop music was the artistic metaphor you wanted to use to tell this sort of viscerally gutting story of decay?
BC: Yeah. For me, pop musicians are sort of at the top of the pop cultural food chain, and I think that something that's interesting about it is that it's always on. It's in every taxi you're in, it's in every supermarket you're in, it's just omnipresent. And its omnipresence, the fact that it functions as, like, a mantra—you know, that everyone is repeating all the time—the kind of mantra quality of it for me feels a little bit religious.
I've fielded a few questions about, "Well, what is it you're trying to say about the pop music industry?" And it's funny because I didn't know the pop music industry was so fragile that it needed to be defended. You're talking about something that is, of course, totally corporate, and there's a place for it. We all love pop music. My daughter loves pop music, my wife loves pop music, I love pop music, but I do think that what was on the airwaves and what was popular 40 years ago or 50 years ago, versus what is popular now... I mean, we're talking about David Bowie and the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, [who also made] optimistic music, and who ended up getting some corporate backers, but they were artists. And I think that we still have great artists, but we've got a lot of other stuff too. And so the idea was not to hold pop music's feet to the fire but to hold the industry a little bit to the fire, the corporate machination behind it—which I didn't think anybody would have a problem with. But it is this weird thing because everyone develops very personal relationships with these things. It feels like it was made for them, but it wasn't made for them. It was made for everybody, it wasn't made for them.
It's interesting when you talk about the fragility of this multibillion-dollar industry because it's like the fragility of America, where some people get so upset if you criticize this country, and just can't handle someone kneeling during the anthem. Like, how fragile is this powerful thing if it can't withstand critique? It's a really bizarre phenomenon, where we're supposed to be careful around the biggest most powerful things, like the white male ego… [laughing, to Corbet] Sorry!
BC: [laughs] No worries, but yeah, it's a patriotic act to constantly question your representatives. And so, yeah, I couldn't agree more, but here we are.
Natalie, what did you think when you first read the script?
Natalie Portman: I was blown away by the dialogue that this character got to say. It was just so, like, juicy to get to do as an actress, because she's constantly shifting. She's just constantly showing different sides of herself, and she's really just veering between complete nonsense and really insightful things, and then it was embedded in this story that just felt extremely reflective of this moment we live in, without tackling it in any direct way. Like, we're not talking about politics in any direct way, but, it has the atmosphere of the time we live in, which I think is a very hard thing to get at.
You don't come on screen until about halfway through the film, and then you dominate it. What choices did you make to keep a balance in having her be both very recognizably human, with all of her weaknesses, but also just protected by her persona?
NP: I think that the writing really helped because I think that vacillation between things that were relatable that you were like, Oh yes, that would be very painful. That would be very painful to have your sister comfort you and not know whether she's trying to get you back on stage to perform again because she wants you to keep the family business going, or if she's genuinely taking care of you because she loves you and is trying to give you a pep talk.
That is genuinely painful, but then you just see the kind of pageantry of evil where she's been rewarded so many times for being outrageous, obnoxious, more vulgar; the more attention she gets, the more inappropriate, the more rude, the more attention... it's like a feedback mechanism that she's getting these kinds of rewards. You know, you basically get more hits on your story if you're more scandalous, and if you're more obnoxious... like, people will be more interested. And so you see what that cycle does, that kind of feedback mechanism, what that does to a person.
BC: And I think that one of the most disturbing moments in the film is that you finally see behind the armor a little bit when she has her nervous breakdown, which is the first thing that we shot together on the film. And yet when you're able to get past all the blubbering, you realize that she's still just talking about herself, and so it's very disturbing because you see that the pain is real, but even at her most vulnerable, she ultimately, she's just like, "I saw a photo of myself, I look so ugly." And it's like, the fact that she looks ugly is this existential trauma, and I feel like that's how our kids are growing up. And it's burdensome. If we're thinking about it as adults, for our kids; it's what they're going through and what they will go through, because surfaces are celebrated, and not only are they celebrated, we're constantly told that they are the ultimate. It's very troubling.
The last scene of the film is 15 minutes of just pure pop performance. What was the decision behind ending like that? It is such a departure from the rest of the film.
BC: I think it's fascinating that everybody's waiting for that moment for an hour and forty minutes, and then they get it.
That rarely happens, that we get what we're waiting for.
BC: But there is this kind of interesting thing which is that, if you don't know a pop song, it doesn't have its power. Like if you're hearing something for the very first time, it doesn't have its hooks in you. It takes two or three spins before it starts to work. And so there is something fascinating about listening to thirteen-and-a-half minutes of music that you are not familiar with. The scene, I will say, is much more exhilarating the better you know the songs, because you anticipate certain moments, et cetera. And the songs are very good. But the idea was that you see everything for what it is, like going into a concert and you just watch it. And for me, that 14 minutes allows everyone to think about the hour and forty minutes that's preceded it, and I think that the idea that you feel like you should be having a good time and occasionally you check in and you are having a good time, and it is exhilarating, but then you can't believe it's still going on.
There's something about all of those feelings that, as a viewer, I think are exhilarating, they're challenging, it's complicated, you know, and people have feelings about that sequence that are all over the map. I've had people come up to me and say, "Well, I just felt like it was such a gift at the end of the movie." And some people feel exactly the opposite, and I think that both are valid, so that was... it functions as it was designed.
It was a moment of epiphany, I felt. I could just reflect on everything I'd just seen. And so, Natalie, was it just really really fun?
NP: It was really fun. I mean, obviously, there's a lot of darkness that it's coming out of, but it's also kind of her way, as well as the audience's way, of escaping and forgetting all the other stuff and just being in the moment of fun music. And, in many ways, it really does feel like her kind of most comfortable self in a way, I think, performing there. It was definitely a little childhood dream come true.
Vox Lux is playing in select theaters now.