January 29, 2019 – Natalie Portman effectively plays a pop singer who is an emotional wreck in this drama about a survivor of a school shooting who becomes an overnight pop star, then gets bogged down in the business of maintaining that celebrity over years of touring and recording.
The structure of this movie is off beat, with off-screen narration filling in many plot points (including the passage of years in time) not seen on screen, and an actress who plays two different characters in the film. From my own point of view, both of these things were distracting and confusing. I found myself wondering more than once what the hell these characters were talking about. Subtitles would have helped.
While Portman does a fine job playing a pop singer (including doing her own singing) she doesn't enter the film until the 53-minute mark. Her character, Celeste, is played by Raffey Cassidy (“Tomorrowland”) for the first 53 minutes of the film, starting at age 14, where she survives a high school shooting. She and her sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin of “All the Money in the World”) compose a song to memorialize the shooting victims. The song becomes a big hit, thrusting the sisters into the morally corrosive world of pop music.
The first part of the film follows the sisters as they grow together, then apart, under the pressures of the music business. Stress and drugs do quite a number on Celeste, as the film suddenly jumps 17 years into the future, to the year 2017, according to the narrator, Willem Dafoe, who intones, “Celeste would be 31 years old. Prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present which had reached an extreme of its cycle, and there was no imagining what forms that it, or she would assume.”
Here is one of the places the movie caused me to do a double and triple take. Celeste, now played by Natalie Portman (“Annihilation”) is now an unannounced mother, and the actress who played Celeste seconds before, Raffey Cassidy, is now playing the part of Celeste's daughter, Albertine. So, instead of the daughter becoming the mother, the mother becomes the daughter, or maybe the sister becomes the mother.
The last hour of the film becomes largely a story of Celeste and Albertine's very uneasy relationship during preparations for Celeste's tour to promote her new Vox Lux album. Celeste worries about her daughter, but doesn't have time to take care of her, a job seemingly left to her sister, Eleanor, who also still seems to be writing songs for Celeste. Eleanor is the person Celeste conveniently blames for her daughter's faults. Others in the film include Celeste's manager, played by Jude Law of “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”) and her publicist, Jessica (played by Jennifer Ehle of “Zero Dark Thirty”).
The film is divided into chapters, with titles like “Regenesis.” This disjointed story structure, plus the narration which can't fully plug holes in the story, and the time gaps make for an awkward presentation, rescued, as much as it can be, by Portman's over-the-top performance. The final stage performance is pretty good, considering Celeste's intoxicated state at the time.
This movie is certainly an ideal vehicle for Natalie Portman to show off her acting, singing and dancing talents, but beyond that, it doesn't seem to amount to much. As an examination of pop culture, drugs, sex and rock and roll it is more of a piecemeal caricature than it is an integrated portrayal. The sum of its parts seem to add up to less of a whole than it should. This film rates a C.
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