This holiday season, as you and your loved ones decide which holiday classic, or new release, to experience together, the right choice may not be Vox Lux. It is deeply troubling, abrasive, and polarizing. It is also (unfortunately) very timely, haunting, and profoundly thought-provoking.
One foggy morning in 1999, tragedy strikes at a suburban middle school. A teen boy commits a horrific mass shooting. Music student Celeste survives, through painful physical therapy and a bullet permanently lodged in her spine. She and her older sister Ellie express their mourning through song, capturing the hearts, and attention, of their community and the nation. Celeste is snatched away and groomed for a life of pop stardom, plunging her into an adult world of drug use, physical intimacy, and a bitter cynicism beyond her teen years.
Her innocence and light is extinguished that horrible day, and she’s left bearing the scars the rest of her life. As the years pass, the sweet, artistic girl in music class is unrecognizable in the cruel, arrogant demeanor of adult Celeste (played to outrageous perfection by Natalie Portman). Closer to the present era, another tragedy strikes, and all eyes are on Celeste as to what her next move will be: cancel her hometown concert, speak out, or conduct business as usual. Her management asks her whether she’s going to perform tonight as planned, and Celeste shrugs it off, asserting that pop music makes people happy and keeps their mind away from reality.
Light and dark are presented both as a dichotomy, though invariably linked concepts throughout Vox Lux. At its narrative core, a traumatic act of evil is what spurs the initial artistic expression, or at least its introduction to the world. If the attack hadn’t taken place, would Celeste and Ellie have written such a beautiful song? And if they had, would they have had the world’s attention, and been catapulted to stardom?
The darkness is the fuel powering and driving the light, which is senselessly snuffed out by acts of cruelty and evil. Even in the present-day, Celeste is snappy with her daughter Albertine, practically a reincarnation of the optimistic girl Celeste once was. She is the result of an early encounter by young Celeste with a male rock star, itself a meeting that would never have taken place without the tragedy, or the access and platform it brought Celeste. Like a phoenix, from the darkness comes a new light, itself in danger of having its innocence destroyed by the adult world.
At first glance, Vox Lux feels so timely due to its disturbing content, not a stretch from what’s in the newspapers more and more often. But deeper to its core, it asks how we respond to such horrific acts of evil, and the imprint it can leave on the human spirit. We can let it consume us and allow it to spread, or we can confront it head-on, shining a light in the darkness.