This is the seventh installment of our “Home Movies” column by Philippa Snow, about what we watch when no one’s watching.
Watched this week:
Vox Lux (2018) | Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020)
It took me weeks to figure out what the poppy-portentous tone of Vox Lux made me think of when I saw it in 2018, only to realize with a start that it was not a movie or a novel, but a cover profile from Esquire magazine that had been published ten years earlier. In 2007, Tom Junod, a journalist of some renown and considerable talent, profiled Angelina Jolie for the July issue of the magazine, taking the unusual approach of foregrounding not Jolie’s beauty or her CV, but her conceptual connection to the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. “This is a 9/11 story,” Junod argued in its opening lines. “Granted, it’s also a celebrity profile—well, a profile of Angelina Jolie—and so calling it a 9/11 story may sound like a stretch. But that’s the point. It’s a 9/11 story because it’s a celebrity profile—because celebrities and their perceived power are a big part of the strange story of how America responded to the attacks upon it.”
As a thesis, it is curious, and yet not as inaccurate or as disastrous as several outlets claimed when it was published. Tom Junod was right that America’s attitude to celebrity changed in light of the immensity of the events of 9/11—that, as evidenced by both the birth of TMZ and the advent of reality television, it “intensified into a kind of collective lunacy”—and he was not wrong about the fundamental inaccuracy of a New York Times piece published the same month as the attack predicting that the fallout from this devastating act of terrorism would destroy all interest in the private lives of famous people. He was wrong, I think, to tie the observation to a profile of Jolie, who does not feel iconic, all-American or irreplaceable enough. Better by far would have been using Britney Spears, a star whose global reach was only equalled by her universal image as America’s formerly-teen sweetheart, and who in 2007 was mid-breakdown—a terrified onetime pinup who had come to mirror America’s unease and neuroticism.
Brady Corbet understands this, I assume, which is why he wrote and directed the uneven and provocative Vox Lux, an ice-cold, borderline-pretentious film about a Spearsian pop star whose trajectory is much like the trajectories of many female pop stars in real life: a professional boom, a personal crash, a shaky comeback. The film opens with Celeste, a would-be singer, at thirteen, played as a doe-eyed Christian nerd by Raffey Cassidy. It is 1999, the end of the millennium, and the year marred by the mass shooting at Columbine High School, in which fourteen students and one teacher died. Corbet stages his own version of the crime, with Celeste narrowly escaping death; in hospital, her throat wounded by a gunshot, she whispers mysteriously to her sister that she fears she has done something terrible. When the two girls write a song in memory of their fallen classmates, their innocent blend of teenspeak and emotion leads to a video of them going viral. (How a video went viral shortly before the turn of the millennium is unclear.) Celeste, the singer and therefore the public face, becomes immediately famous. Her hit singles, penned by Sia, are electro-trap, more like present-day music than the era’s actual tracks. She wears a mirror-ball mask in her music video, and it becomes her signature; she meets an older, rougher rocker, and gets pregnant at fifteen. The day the planes hit the Twin Towers, she runs screaming to her sister’s hotel room, and finds her in bed with their manager: “Celeste’s loss of innocence,” the film’s narrator, Willem Dafoe, offers self-seriously, “curiously mirrored that of the nation.” 9/11 marks the end of the film’s first and second acts, and ushers in a gruesome third.
Swap the name “Angelina Jolie” for “Celeste,” and conjure up Dafoe’s disquieting, stern tones, and Junod’s opening paragraph could be dropped wholesale into the narration of Vox Lux. The final segment of the film sees Celeste eighteen years older, played by Natalie Portman instead of Raffey Cassidy, a monster with an evil ego. Having been extremely famous for at least half of her life, she lacks the filter that typically forces adult human beings to behave: she is vituperative, brash, an alcoholic and a drug addict, and black as tar inside. When another terrorist group wears masks like the one in her video, her press conference about the murders is no masterclass in tact: “When I was a little girl,” she snarls, “I used to believe in God too. Tell them if they ever come to their senses and they want something new to believe in, they can believe in me—because I’m the new faith.”
I admit to being a member of the small minority who is not fond of Portman’s acting as a rule; the very qualities that her biggest supporters find enchanting leaving me entirely cold. Her performance in Vox Lux, giving Celeste a litany of extreme physical tics and a wild twang that sounds like Bobby Cannavale’s in Blue Jasmine, is a mess: showy but soulless. “Portman … isn’t primarily an actress of dialogue,” New Yorker critic Richard Brody wrote in 2018, reviewing Vox Lux. “She performs it fluently, intelligently, expressively, but not spontaneously; the calculation shows.” In pop, if not in acting, a meticulous approach to making work is often seen as preferable, the result engineered to appear clean and smooth, as seamless as a well-designed piece of technology. If that Noo Joisey accent is supposed to make Celeste seem more like a real girl, it is not quite enough to cancel out her stiffness. Back in 2018, near the end of “poptimism,” Portman’s casting as a pop star felt like an egregious misstep, a bad match. Now, at a time when even Taylor Swift is stripping back her sound, her inappropriateness and ineptitude seem more deliberate. Raffey Cassidy is not a natural singer; she and Portman are both fairly middling dancers, competent but wholly graceless. The result is that the movie’s final scene, a concert by Celeste that runs for almost fifteen minutes, feels both underwhelming and wholly outdated, less a celebration than a wake.
In the closing moments of the film, it is revealed that Celeste has become successful despite never being a brilliant performer or a consummate musician because, harking back to the earlier scene in which she whispered to her sister that she had committed some terrible crime, she met the devil as she lay half-dead on life support, and sold her soul: “He whispered her melodies,” Dafoe says, “and she returned with a mission to bring great change to the next century.” It is Celeste, therefore, and not 9/11, that has ushered in an age of celebrity mania, a prizing of plasticity over artistry. Whether or not Corbet meant it to be so, Vox Lux is as much a tragedy about elevating mediocrity as it is an unnerving fable about fame. “It doesn’t matter anymore if you’re Michelangelo, or if you’re Mikey and Angelo from New Brighton,” Celeste tells her teenage daughter, bluntly. “All that matters is that you have an angle.”
The same week I rewatched Vox Lux, I watched another, newer film about fictional singers calling on the supernatural for success, the Netflix movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. A comedy about two Icelandic dorks whose lifelong dream is to compete at Eurovision, it is as tonally jarring as Vox Lux in an entirely different way—written by and starring the comedian and SNL alum Will Ferrell, it is infinitely softer than his previous, more raucous outings, privileging its tender feelings about Eurovision’s innocent appeal over the need for belly laughs or surreal quotes. It is more Mikey and Angelo than Michelangelo, but it certainly has an angle. Lars and Sigrit live in Húsavík, where since 1974 they have been obsessed with the contest, playing together in a terrible pop duo called Fire Saga; they may or may not be siblings, a fact complicated by Sigrit’s undying love for Lars. Somewhat improbably, the two are meant to be a very similar age, despite the fact that Lars is played by Ferrell, who is 53, and Sigrit is played by the 41-year-old Rachel McAdams. A freak accident propels them to the semi-finals, all of Iceland’s other hopefuls burned to ashes on a barge. McAdams, cycling from horror to elation as they watch at least ten other people die, gets to pay minor homage to one of the best line readings of the previous decade.
Ferrell is no stranger to the tragicomic power of a very average individual’s story being elevated to heroic status, his two biggest films—Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby—having been produced as the first two installments in a triptych, the “Mediocre American Man Trilogy.” Like Celeste’s stage look and her music, and like Junod’s Jolie profile, Eurovision Song Contest also has its spiritual roots in the mid-Noughties, not only as a descendant of those former Ferrell hits, but as a more literal relative of 2007’s Blades of Glory. (Ice skating, like Eurovision, is camp enough that satire cannot quite eclipse its real-life lunacy.) Fire Saga are not good, exactly, even if their single “Ja Ja Ding Dong”—an upbeat delivery system for a stream of penis jokes—is catchier than Celeste’s output. What they share with Celeste is an unwavering, borderline-unhinged conviction that their lives have been mapped out for stardom since the moment of their birth.
As in Vox Lux, there are supernatural forces behind Lars and Sigrit’s win: Sigrit, a believer in folklore, has been making offerings to mythic elves in exchange for a shot at fame, and the elves have committed murder numerous times on her behalf. Fame, in both movies, is therefore a result of the muddling of fate and engineering—less to do with talent than with a desire to be special, to live an exceptional life. In this sense, Eurovision Song Contest is as much about elevating mediocrity as Corbet’s heavier, more serious film, the difference being that instead of tragedy, it plays as farce. It embodies the same kind of entertainment sold by Celeste to her audience, loud and immediate but instantly forgettable—full of sound and dry ice, signifying nothing.