Natalie Portman is captivating as a tormented pop star in Vox Lux

Roiling with narcissism and insecurity, she plays a been-there, done-that, know-it-all, pop diva capitalist demon

This month, Patrik Sandberg is at Toronto International Film Festival reporting for Dazed on the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

While Lady Gaga prepares to premiere A Star Is Born in Toronto Sunday night, another fame monster has stormed the city, and this one is all fangs. Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux is a stunningly original and utterly masterful – if misanthropic – work of narrative art. For anyone who’s laboured in or adjacent to the pop music business, this film should be nothing short of a beacon of laughs: a bonfire of the vanities, where each cruel scene serves as more of a send-up than the last. For those looking for drama, Natalie Portman’s staggeringly conceited and poisonous Celeste will both abhor your better angels and summon your deepest concerns. It’s a bravura performance that only builds upon Portman’s mythos as one of the most fearless and hallucinatory screen actors of the century.

The film opens with a gut punch – an event so terrifying and unsettling that the remainder of the film operates under a corona of fear, a PTSD that extends to the central characters. Narrated by the gleefully contrite Willem Dafoe, we meet Celeste and her sister, Eleanor (a sympathetic Stacy Martin), thick as thieves, and watch as they write songs together, navigate tragedy, rise from the ashes to national acclaim, and journey to the belly of the New York City beast to sign Celeste’s recording contract and embark upon a teen pop odyssey. As young Celeste, the captivating Raffey Cassidy radiates the type of drama department confidence that propels many kids into the arms of sharky managers. Celeste’s minder is played with a sweaty, New Jersey slipperyness by none other than Jude Law, going against type with uproarious accuracy.

“Portman’s staggeringly conceited and poisonous Celeste will both abhor your better angels and summon your deepest concerns”

Nearly two decades later, fame has spoiled Celeste, both financially and spiritually. Recovering from another unseen incident involving an automotive disaster, Celeste drinks, has a history with drug addiction, and is marred by a controversy that mirrors the cauldron from which her career emerged. Some other things have happened too, blanks filled in by Dafoe’s narrative like Hot Topics in a tabloid news magazine. As she prepares to release her greatest artistic statement yet, her new album Vox Lux, Celeste must contend with earnest journalists she considers to be media vultures, a notorious ex-husband (out of the picture), and her own demons to win back the public’s adoration that has come to fuel her existence.

Roiling with narcissism and insecurity, Portman plays the Staten Island-inflected pop diva as a been-there, done-that, know-it-all, capitalist demon, putting down people around her to make herself bigger, fucking when it makes herself feel better, and blaming everybody else when it all begins to unravel. Some have compared this performance to her Oscar-winning role in Black Swan, but Jackie is in here too, and one can’t help but feel this is a character Portman could have only conjured now, in the aftermath of those battling figures: the woman intoxicated by ambition and driven to self destruction, and the woman tormented by grief and trauma, pulling it together before an audience of skeptics and untrustworthy allies.

“It’s a film that holds the pop industry’s feet to the fire and summons ghosts of divas destroyed”

Most urgently, the film marks an arrival of sorts for Corbet, whose last film, The Childhood of a Leader, was also given warm reception although it failed to make the cultural impact this film could, given the strengths of Portman’s stardom and her performance at the center. Most know Corbet from his acting, in films like Funny Games, Force Majeure, Melancholia, and Clouds of Sils Maria, among others. Working with directors like Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke, Corbet learned from the best and their influence looms large over the caustic, stunningly composed, stylish direction on display here. Framed by an invigorating stream of scenes that are, for lack of a more universal term, flawless reads, Corbet has created something layered, comic, visually inspired, wrenching, and at times, genuinely scary. From Scott Walker’s eerie score to Sia’s self-referential pop music that repels with its utter triteness, it’s a film that holds the pop industry’s feet to the fire and summons ghosts of divas destroyed, from Karen Carpenter to Amy Winehouse to Whitney Houston. Pain, power, and pleasure is an intoxicating cocktail that grows deadly at a certain point. A topic so frothy on the surface and suffuse with darkness underneath creates a perfect alchemy for movie mythology, and Vox Lux delivers on every decibel.

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