Natalie Portman. My god. Do I need to say anything else?
Vox Lux, or as it will be known in the coming years, “The Darker, Moodier Sister of A Star Is Born,” is the second directorial feature from actor Brady Corbet. It stars Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, and of course, narrated by the incomparable Willem Dafoe.
This film’s greatest strength is its writing, which allows each and every performer herein to explore character traits very rarely seen in American cinema. It also contributes to perhaps the most divisive high-profile leading performance of the year, that being Natalie Portman as Celeste in the film’s second half. Before that, this character is portrayed by Raffey Cassidy, who continues her great work of subdued emotion as seen in last year’s The Killing of A Sacred Deer (which is also excellent, by the way).
The dichotomy between these two performances is where my only major issue with the film lies. While it was jarring seeing Cassidy’s subdued performance transition into Portman’s cynical, jaded, and loud portrayal of a pop star mentally twice her age, I eventually came to the conclusion that this was further genius by Corbet in his scriptwriting, as these two wildly different performances allow the viewer to fill in the great blank space between this transition. The imagined (and implied) history of narcotics, scandal, and court rooms in Celeste’s life is almost more fascinating than the story we are told directly in the script. While this was not a problem, the inclusion of Celeste’s daughter was, and I mention Cassidy and Portman’s performances here because, while the young Cassidy plays a young Celeste in the immediate aftermath of an unspeakable tragedy, she also PLAYS PORTMAN’S DAUGHTER IN THE SECOND HALF. Your eyes are not deceiving you, so yes, you read that right. I promise you are not having a stroke. This was perhaps the most baffling casting decision I have ever seen play out on screen. Not only does this make the transition between Celeste’s young and adult life even more jarring, but whenever Portman and Cassidy are onscreen together, you are pulled out of the movie until they become separated.
This was poor decision making on the part of the film’s creative team (and presumably Corbet), end of story.
I have racked my brain since my November 18th screening (two weeks ago, as of the time of this writing), thinking about how this decision fit into the film’s greater messages and metaphors, and I could not find a single reason. Other than this glaring error, the film is an emotional, visual, and dialog-driven roller coaster, with one of the greatest cold opening scenes of the entire year, with another all-star great performance by Natalie Portman, as well as a career best for Jude Law and young Raffey Cassidy. This is definitely one of the film’s from this year’s HIFF that I am most excited to talk about with other people.