PLOT A teen singer grows up to become a famous but jaded pop idol.
CAST Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy
RATED R (sexuality and adult themes)
PLAYING AT Film Forum and Lincoln Square 13 in Manhattan.
BOTTOM LINE An artful evisceration of the entertainment industry, with Portman’s unhinged diva hitting a high note.
In Brady Corbet’s “Vox Lux,” a teenage girl named Celeste survives a school shooting, turns the tragedy into a hit song and then, years later, learns that her music has inspired another, similar crime. A journalist asks: How does Celeste — played as an unhinged adult by Natalie Portman — feel about that? In response, Celeste offers free concert tickets to terrorists. “I am the new faith,” she proclaims.
As biopics of fictional pop-stars go, “Vox Lux” is less about chasing your dreams than watching them curdle into something evil. (“Glitter,” this ain’t.) With a soundtrack of contemporary could-be hits by Sia, a thrillingly discordant score by cult hero Scott Walker and a wigged-out performance from Portman that recalls her Oscar-winning turn in “Black Swan,” “Vox Lux” is a dark fable about fame, image and entertainment that perfectly captures our culturally chaotic moment. It’s the art-house flip-side to “A Star Is Born.”
For the first half of “Vox Lux,” young Celeste is played by Raffey Cassidy as a mousy teen with a small singing voice. Her post-shooting ballad, however — played with her sister, Ellie (Stacy Martin), on keyboards — goes viral and attracts first a hard-driving manager (Jude Law, with stubble and an American accent) and then a record deal. “I don’t want people to think too hard,” Celeste says of her music. “I just want them to feel good.”
By the time Celeste is played by Portman, she has become an alcoholic, a mother (Cassidy returns, eerily, to play her own daughter, Albertine), a Kanye-caliber motormouth and an emotional wreck. Celeste’s preconcert meltdown in the bowels of an arena is a harrowing and grimly hilarious performance, reminiscent of Cassavetes-era Gena Rowlands. Once on stage, wrapped in a black catsuit and with cheeks covered in glass tears, Portman puts on a deliciously sinister show.
Corbet, whose previous film, “The Childhood of a Leader,” was also a biopic of sorts, has so much to say about the entertainment-industrial complex that he can’t clearly articulate all of it. What’s more, after connecting so many modern cultural dots — from terrorism to EDM — Corbet returns to a mythical tale as old as the blues. Still, “Vox Lux” is a heady experience, a canny pop critique set to an ominous beat.
PORTMAN'S MOST MEMORABLE
Natalie Portman, the Jericho-raised actress, has been part of our moviegoing lives for so long it’s easy to forget she’s only 37. Here are four of her most memorable movies:
LÉON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994) This was quite a film debut: Portman’s role as a 12-year-old taken in by an older assassin (Jean Reno) raised some eyebrows. Portman was about the same age as her character.
THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999) As Padmé Amidala, Portman got to change costumes more times than Cher at Madison Square Garden. The character remains a “Star Wars” favorite — especially in the lesser-loved Second Trilogy.
GARDEN STATE (2004) “The Shins. You gotta hear this one song, it will change your life, I swear.” So said Portman’s Sam to Zach Braff’s Andrew in “Garden State,” a movie-music moment almost as iconic as the boombox scene in “Say Anything.” The song was “New Slang,” by the way.
BLACK SWAN (2010) Portman’s performance as a ballerina whose success comes at the price of mental deterioration was a bit of a departure. It also became her Oscar-winning role .--RAFER GUZMAN