In the U.S., the unspeakable carnage of a mass shooting is usually followed by thoughts, prayers, government inaction, and public outcry over said inaction. In Vox Lux, actor-turned-director Brady Corbet trades the standard post-mass shooting discourse — after gunmen fire assault rifles indiscriminately at beachgoers in Croatia — in favor of pop scrutiny.
Rather than the NRA and Republican politicians, responsibility for the violent episode is placed on Celeste, a mononymous singer deified by her fans, as well as the artist herself, as she kicks off a comeback tour tied to the release of her new record (which is also the source of the film’s title). Though calling it a comeback is a touchy subject. “I never stopped making music,” she hisses acidly at a journalist during a roundtable, “so I don’t consider it a resurgence.”
Why Celeste? When the attackers make their entrance in Vox Lux — marking the start of the film’s second act (“Act II, Regenesis”) — they’re wearing the same masks Celeste wore in her first big music video, shot nearly two decades prior when she was a teenager. The association is reason enough for the media, who hold Celeste captive at a press conference to demand she answer for the killers’ actions and make amends to the public: “Why do you think they chose you?” “Are there any links between you and central Europe?” “Are you and the band still going forward with the show tonight?”
The answers, in order: Maybe because she’s a woman; no, she’s never played a show there; and yes, because there’s no point in postponing joy. But she shouldn’t have to say so in the first place. She isn’t the one who had her finger on the trigger.
Vox Lux, along with Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born remake and the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, is the third movie of 2018 to contend with the delicate matter of what artists owe the culture they live in. Of the three it’s also the bluntest troll, a stiff middle finger aimed at a Twitter-fueled culture of self-congratulatory star shaming. Art is of less interest to gatekeepers of discourse than the artist’s disposition, Vox Lux suggests, and Celeste’s is under constant litigation by journalists, tabloid vultures, and social media. They’re all so busy litigating her culpability, her art isn’t even in question.
[Ed. note: The following contains spoilers for A Star Is Born and plot points for Vox Lux.]
It’s fitting that Celeste, played as a teen by Raffey Cassidy and as an adult by Natalie Portman, is called to the stand for others’ atrocities. Years after expending her sympathy card — her career began with a school shooting, which she survived and commemorated in a song she wrote with her sister, Ellie (Stacy Martin) — she attracts more chagrin than charity. “Maybe they think I’m a floozy,” she supposes to the press corps regarding why the shooters picked her as the symbol of their violence, “but maybe you guys think that too. I mean, the way I’ve chosen to live my life goes against some people’s views on things.” Fall out of lockstep with what the herd deems appropriate, and your persona is called into question, too.
Celeste’s trial in the court of public opinion contrasts with the rags-to-riches tale of A Star is Born’s Ally Campana (Lady Gaga). She has ambitions she keeps mostly to herself and talent she shares with small audiences. It so happens that one night her audience includes Jackson Maine (Cooper), a famous country singer, who, dazzled by her vocal gifts, takes Ally under his wing and propels her to center stage. It’s an American dream come true.
Eventually, his battles with alcoholism weigh her down, and while he gets the help he needs, it’s not enough. His demons get the best of him. His story ends in a garage. It’s a lonely death, but one that does for Ally the inverse of what Celeste’s own battles with past trauma do to her. From darkness, pop culture ushers her toward the light.
Ally and Celeste have much in common. The pop culture industrial complex forces evolution in both of them (Ally from country to pop, Celeste from a gentler form of pop to a gothic synth mutation of her original sound) they both achieve godlike status in pop culture, though A Star is Born leaves this as subtext where Vox Lux makes it text. “I used to believe in God, too, and if they ever come to their senses, and they want something new to believe in, they can believe in me, ’cause I’m the new faith,” Celeste declares while offering her murderous imitators a staggeringly ill-advised invitation to her concert. Ally’s godhood instead towers over cities from billboards. By comparison, she’s downright humble.
Their transformations are tolls paid to the culture. Ally owes listeners what her producer Rez (Rafi Gavron) thinks will sell records: vapid pop that betrays her roots. Celeste owes listeners an explanation to help them make sense of the senseless, a burden she’s unequipped to shoulder. Galling insensitivity to Celeste’s history with mass shootings aside, she’s not the right messenger to deliver a dispatch for hope in the wake of tragedy. It’s not because she’s a woman, or a successful woman, or that she had a kid when, in her words, she was a kid — it’s because her life’s a luxurious mess, the result of her experiences in an industry that both holds her in contempt and expects her to be the figurehead to speak words of healing. She needs to heal, too, and no one affords her the chance. Such is the fate of public figures posing as divine beings.
This is arguably as true for Freddie Mercury, portrayed in Bohemian Rhapsody by Rami Malek. But instead of wrestling with the morals and duties of stardom, the greatest hits biopic spells out in block letters what Vox Lux and A Star is Born write in cursive.
“We’re four misfits who don’t belong together, playing to the other misfits, the outcasts right at the back of the room, who are pretty sure they don’t belong, either,” says Mercury to John Reid (Aidan Gillen), Queen’s new manager. “We belong to them.” Later, Freddie sits before a press conference, too, but handles the pressure like a man cornered and not a woman falsely accused. He breaks down, but she blows up. Next to Freddie and Celeste, Ally’s the lucky one. Only Jackson is dragged in the press; she’s treated like a victim.
Pop culture denies Celeste the same privilege, and Vox Lux makes careful note of the denial. It’s a bratty, taunting movie, but compared to Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born, it’s unfailingly honest. Corbet’s abrasive filmmaking affords him a clear-eyed take on the transmutative effect of pop commercialism, as stardom washes honest musicians away in a flash. Tempt a young, earnest songwriter with a record contract, and they’ll stop singing country tunes or heartbreaking personal anthems, trading their spirit for electronic glitz, buried in synth and reverb.
A Star Is Born shrugs off the ramifications of Ally’s change in persona; Vox Lux observes those ramifications in anger. Celeste’s innocence is stolen from her over the course of her life, starting at the very beginning of the film and ending as she seeks oblivion in the choreography of her stage show.
Having long ago appropriated Celeste’s earnest expressions of pain and remade them as edgy entertainment, the culture is happy to throw her pain back at her in her adulthood.
Corbet, a student of Michael Haneke (Amour, Funny Games), understands the dynamic well. Violence happens in the world, and pop music synthesizes it. At best, that births a No. 1 hit for Celeste. At worst, it makes her culpable in the killings that open Vox Lux’s second half, all while picking over the details of the pop life foisted on her as a kid. Entertainment culture makes her into a symbol and rejects the symbol when it suits the culture’s needs. Ultimately, pop culture is violence.
Andy Crump is a contributor for Paste magazine, The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow him on Twitter @agracru.