Rather than a fascist leader, in Vox Lux Celeste suggests a different sort of monstrosity – a receptacle for the nation’s horrors and fantasies, even more than a Madonna or a Marilyn. The fact that the face of victims of violence all over the world belongs to a pop diva is frightening in its blandness. As Godard demonstrated in The Image Book, pop images and ISIS videos now exist on the same plane of representation: backlit yet banal, they are all part of the “neon demon” of contemporary culture.
* * *
There are very few directors whose work is both bombastic and mysterious: hitting you over the head with style while leaving you puzzled as to where its real concerns lie. Other than 30-year-old American Brady Corbet, I struggle to think of a living filmmaker who makes the combination work. Corbet’s debut The Childhood of a Leader, a suspenseful yet curiously restrained look at the making of a dictator, was the highlight of Venice in 2015; his smashing second feature, Vox Lux, set in the world of pop, screened at Toronto last month.
Both films are thundering, pushing style to excruciation with booming soundtracks and an unrelenting air of menace; these power effects are paired with bookish fonts and effete chapter titles. Each film is based on a deliberately tenuous premise: in The Childhood of a Leader, it’s the alleged link between a dysfunctional childhood and fascism, while Vox Lux posits a relationship between mass killing and glam pop. A wild theory is taken to its “logical” conclusion, in the form of a momentous, tragic event. The connection between poor parenting and dictatorship, pop songs and gun massacres, might be far-fetched, but look closer: aren’t the parallels uncanny?
It’s that uncertainty which makes Corbet’s films so diabolical: the fact that they exist on the edge of an analogy turned literal. Only the films of the late Claude Chabrol went as far in suggesting that the complexities and contradictions that underlie our society might be “responsible” for the type of crime that subsequently occurs.
Vox Lux regards the development of singer Celeste with the same foreboding that marked the early life of the dictator in The Childhood of a Leader. From the beginning, Scott Walker’s orchestral score deals out a series of warnings, in fine little strokes. In this pop star, it seems, a new kind of tyrant is being born, whose consequences will be just as devastating for the world.
The teenage Celeste first appears in school, where one of the students – a boy with smudged black eyes and a near-total lack of affect – turns a gun on the classroom. The pure-faced Celeste offers herself as a sacrifice to protect the other children, although more killings occur before the rampage is over. Celeste is wounded by a slash to the neck, but emerges transformed, having found her voice in the midst of the ultraviolence. She finds that she wants to connect with people, using music to express her new maturity. The event turns out to be the making of her, launching her as a global celebrity and figure of hope. A mass tragedy is reclaimed as a personal narrative of empowerment.
As played by Raffey Cassidy (above), Celeste is a fearsomely efficient little pop star, whose idealism and brand happen to be perfectly in sync. She speaks in bland pleasantries, and her songs strike the right tone of confession and rueful optimism, without probing beyond her own experience. While she is a skilled singer, there is something expressionless about her vocal delivery, a passivity at odds with her determination. This is something Celeste has in common with several real-life music stars. Ariana Grande, the blank-faced singer whose show was the target of 2017’s Manchester bombing, has recently struck gold with her single “No Tears Left to Cry,” with its catchy chorus of emotional redemption (“So I’m pickin’ it up, pickin it up”). In her combination of girlishness and formidable brand-building, Celeste also resembles Taylor Swift – dubbed by Camille Paglia the “Nazi Barbie” of pop, considered capable of swinging an election.
So much blood went into the making of Celeste as an immaculate superstar, but no one seems shocked at the way she was handed her platform. Being publicly produced as a “survivor” has simply given her the narrative of reinvention today’s female stars require, especially if they are going to perform slogan-like songs about transcending pain. We follow the management of Celeste’s career, from being put through dance classes to increase her versatility to selecting a font that helps to “express the music.” But even here Corbet uses the string score to maintain a feeling of dread, seeing in the linear discipline – the literal sculpting of this figure – a horror that has yet to manifest itself. Walker’s soundtrack strikes stabbing notes as we see skyscrapers shoot from the ground up: a rise and rise that is both electrifying and dismaying. For now, such chords of terror seem out of proportion to events, but Corbet has his reasons for likening the growth of a star to the birth of fascism.
Cut to fourteen years later, and Celeste is played by a scowling Natalie Portman, who seems to be doing a caricature of a hard-boiled dame (she is actually at her career-best in another Toronto film, Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F Donovan). However, Portman does convey some of the black fury of the adult star who feels that her success has been poisoned. The fantasy of the haunted diva is only too real, and it is an essential part of the marketing. The gash to her neck is covered by a silver band – a mark of survivorhood as well as a fetching accessory, the brand of martyrdom worn with high-fashion flair. The silver seal is a reminder of Celeste’s sacrificial past, the fact that her fame was born out of both tragedy and opportunism.
On stage, the singer looks like an angry supernova, her exaggerated smoky eye recalling the death stare of the childhood killer. Perhaps the schoolroom was a rehearsal for the world stage, a reflection of Celeste’s unalienable right to stardom. Even as a child, her innate showbiz instincts redirected violence toward a narrative of regeneration, turning the girl of trembling sensitivity into an icon of endurance. It is a story that has served her well over the years. This is an era of female Ziggy Stardusts and their bitter reckonings with fame, requiring its stars to publicly turn “inward” as part of the rock opera, before reclaiming the spotlight again and again.
Portman’s casting recalls her function in earlier roles, as the ruined ballerina in Black Swan (2010) and the repository for America’s suffering in Jackie (2016). In these films and Vox Lux, she is the darkest of dark stars, a prismatic concentration of the world’s malevolence. Only in her thirties, the spark that made Celeste famous has long gone: drug-addled and with a brain full of nightmares, she is held together by glittery threads, a silver cord binding her head to her body. Visibly a product of assembly, Celeste is a puppet who needs to be jerked through her dance routines and interviews. Yet audiences remain dazzled by the projections over her body. This is the face chosen to play out most of the world’s big moments, from its glamour to its bleakest premonitions of disaster. There is a mass emotional response for every one of Celeste’s stylized expressions: sassy, contrite, noble, defiant.
When terrorists gun down victims on a beach, it is her face they use to express the dehumanization of fear, wearing copies of the masks from her video. Looking back, this girl was the beatific sign of a brutal future, her presence marking the vigil that now follows every classroom massacre. Rather than a fascist leader, Celeste suggests a different sort of monstrosity – a receptacle for the nation’s horrors and fantasies, even more than a Madonna or a Marilyn. The fact that the face of victims of violence all over the world belongs to a pop diva is frightening in its blandness. As Godard demonstrated in The Image Book, pop images and ISIS videos now exist on the same plane of representation: backlit yet banal, they are all part of the “neon demon” of contemporary culture.
Like Godard, Corbet subjects us to the impersonal terror of images and sound, revealing the intuitive connections between stardom and acts of violence. If Celeste is more indicative of a thought process than a person, then the characteristic we associate with her dark, rigid form is linearity. Shock chords are triggered by images of extreme height and depth penetration, from the shots of the Manhattan skyline to the scenes in which Celeste claims visionary power, “connected to the world the whole time and I can hear everyone in my head.” What this film fears – and thrills to – are unswerving sight lines, the kind that launch skyscrapers and meteoric careers. The merciless soundtrack holds us in a vice, with the same grip on awareness that powered the rise of fascism in The Childhood of a Leader.
Corbet’s analogy between celebrity and terrorism may seem an overreach, but it is utterly stimulating. Just as Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal (2016) claimed to ascribe world-shaking events to the actions of one woman, Vox Lux purports to “explain” a culture through the career of its pre-eminent pop artist. It’s as if, in the energy released by each new act of terror, a star is born.
This year’s festival was preoccupied with images of women and fame, with six films centering on female vocalists: a couple on the way up, the others hurtling downward. Max Minghella’s Teen Spirit shows Violet (Elle Fanning), a young British singer, on the ascent – albeit with a caution that makes the film intriguing. In contrast to Portman’s Celeste, Violet is very much a white swan.
As in most of her films, Fanning (below) is portrayed as a fairy creature – she is the Gemma Ward of the acting world, although their numbers are increasing. Playing a working-class striver on the Isle of Wight, the film makes it clear that this is a princess in disguise, one of those girls born in ballet slippers. At the trials for a reality talent show, she is an effortless class act in a world of scrubbers and slatterns. Like Nicolas Winding Refn, Minghella often photographs Fanning against a background of neon, her fair skin and freckles showing up as naturalistic against the glitz. The camera can’t resist comparing her to the other girls at the auditions: coarsely made-up brunettes with muddy faces, sordid in their reactions and gestures.
But even though the film is in awe of her looks, Minghella is more guarded when it comes to asserting the girl’s right to success. Visually, Violet is a superstar, but is her singing the real deal? We are told that she has a “nice” voice – perfectly acceptable, sometimes expressive and stirring. Yet the film can’t quite commit to presenting her as more than a decent, modest talent. At one point, the opening notes of the theme from Fame (1980) play out weakly, but are unable to rouse themselves to the soaring highs of the chorus. We are put through the usual tropes – finding one’s voice onstage, a mentor who rediscovers his love for music – but when the plot offers opportunities for real uplift, the script neatly dodges them. In this regard, Teen Spirit seems to be an unusually detached treatment of stardom – open to its possibilities while keeping an eye on its mechanics.
The fact that the final act is entirely given over to the reality show is strange, as if Minghella had decided to shove the pure product center stage. Is this film about impersonality, then? We observe the generic, efficient schooling required for fame – learning rudimentary dance moves, diversifying one’s portfolio of talent.
It is only Fanning’s face that complicates matters. Like Portman and Audrey Hepburn before her, Fanning registers as an insanely fresh ingenue, with a winning lack of desperation. But is her self-possession – a look of independence, even insolence – a matter of bone structure? Films that focus on fame are really about our eyes – what we can’t stop looking at. If Violet is a particularly absorbing instance of a common product, then this film is about a type of void: the formulaic nature of something we are all obsessed by. The film is notable for its final reluctance to succumb – its unwillingness to play out the high notes, despite the long climb to get there.
Teen Spirit was one of several “genre” pictures in contention for our FIPRESCI Prize: as president of this year’s jury, I was surprised at the diverse mix of films in competition. Comedies are rarely seen in the trophy categories, but we watched two delicious ones: both as elusive as their charming protagonists.
Louis Garrel’s A Faithful Man is a cross between a modern love story and a New Wave film, cut with exhilarating speed and precision. The ostensible plot resembles that of a Philippe Garrel film, with relationship angst and despair, but the young Garrel shows that the same premises can be inhabited in a cool, nonchalant way, with that breathtaking lightness that is so hard for directors to achieve. Rather than the title character, its subject – which the film obeys as logic and organizing principle – is the mercurial nature of its femme fatale (Laetitia Casta), whose desires switch on and off without notice.
Another comedy, Stella Meghie’s The Weekend, was more of a showcase for its female lead, Sasheer Zamata. Watching Zamata in this leisurely film, I can now understand why she didn’t become more of a star on Saturday Night Live. Some chalked it up to her blackness and her conventional beauty, but there may have been other factors at play. Unlike her former SNL castmates Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and the brilliant Cecily Strong, Zamata’s comedy isn’t defined by hyper-stylized verbal tics, the kind that lend themselves to skits and a 2D presentation. Instead, Zamata requires the 360° view and enough time to appreciate how she moves, what she’s about. Her humor is dreamy and atmospheric, rather than pointed; it’s less about a line than changing the mood and temperature of a scene. She has the attitude of seeming wondering even when she reaches for a put-down. With this slight, enjoyable film and her superb reaction shots in I Feel Pretty (2018), Zamata is a star made for the big screen.
Another curiosity was Neil Jordan’s Greta, the kind of loopy pleasure you don’t expect to see in an awards section. Who can resist Isabelle Huppert in a tale of sexual jealousy and delusion? It is a feverish melodrama, such as hardly anyone conceives of today; Jordan zones in on the faces of Huppert and co-star Chloe Grace Moretz as if they were planets, the only objects of interest in the world.
When the lives of Frances (Moretz) and Greta (Huppert) criss-cross, it is a collision that triggers obsession, although initially the stalker seems to be the one being pursued. Frances, a newcomer to the big city, becomes entranced by Greta, a seductive emotional vampire. With her mystery and aplomb, Greta is a pastiche of continental charms: as exotic a monster as one might hope to find in New York. Ostentatiously Gallic, she carries the scent of old Europe and a whiff of sorcery about her – the film is like one of the more delirious Polanski thrillers crossed with a teen slasher flick.
The contest of wills between Greta and Frances is like the duel of two acting styles. Huppert (below, with Moretz) seems to be playing a summary of her roles to date, mostly obviously the perverse instructor in The Piano Teacher (2001). Jordan makes her visual linearity frightening: the balletic mastery of her face and body, her mocking thin smile. Against this controlled display we have Moretz with her youthful, “loose” features, held casually slack. Moretz was at her best as the brazen young nemesis of Juliette Binoche’s actress in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), playing Eve Harrington to the seasoned European star. However, in this film, her character meets a more formidable foe.
This is a wildly expressionist thriller, with a juicy script controlled by pinpoint editing (a metronome even ticks during the most outlandish scene). It is a throwback to both the ’90s and the ’50s: a blackly comic woman’s picture with an edge of European finesse, thanks to the presence of Huppert and Jordan’s precision staging. The director has always excelled at mood: his best moments here are a dream sequence that animates the sleeper’s own lies, and the hilarious, “expository” shots of Frances’ father, establishing him as a man of exactitude: walking through an architectural plan, climbing a spiral staircase, gesturing toward slitted blinds.
Despite these tempting oddities, in the end we awarded the prize to Skin, Guy Nattiv’s riveting study of the choices available to a gang of extremists. Bryon (Jamie Bell, below), one of the gang’s prime movers, is a very compelling camera subject, no less for being a neo-Nazi. Bell is concentrated and minimal in every gesture, in line with the character’s pseudo-Nordic aesthetic, although this tense poise is something we see more often in hip-hop.
Crucially, Bryon’s opposite number, Daryle (Mike Colter), the black founder of an organization that helps people wishing to leave fascist groups, is equally cool, directed and forceful, a treat for the eye and ear. Nattiv isn’t afraid to show us Bryon’s power trip of neo-fascism, but Daryle matches him blow for blow: the film is very careful in its weighting of power dynamics.
Power’s what matters in this “family” of fascists, even when it comes to the power of mothering and melting hearts. Shareen (Vera Farmiga) is an ingenious woman who offers a soft, maternal respite from the severe father (Bill Camp) and jostling band of brothers. Like the Jacki Weaver character in Animal Kingdom (2010), she is in charge of forging emotional ties, babying the child-men and grooming them for acts of hate. Farmiga’s “heartwarming” performance is one of the standouts of this raw yet intelligently paced film.
I will close with another TIFF highlight, a 16mm film shown as part of the festival’s experimental program. The Grand Bizarre is Jodie Mack’s first feature-length work, after making numerous groundbreaking shorts. It is about the rampant transmission of information through graphic patterns and codes, particularly in the medium of textiles. Through animation, swatches of patterned material reproduce in abundance: gathering, bunching up and distributing themselves, like an independent communication system. Each pattern represents a self-contained design for living, with a mischievous personality all its own. Even when these fabrics are torn to shreds, they buzz with industry and glee.
Left to its own devices, pattern ferments like a compost heap: laying low, waiting for the next stage of biological proliferation. Once propelled into common usage, these designs are unstoppable, draping themselves over every object and land mass in sight. For Mack, pattern is what makes the world go round: tessellations show up in rear-view mirrors, giving us flashbacks and premonitions of colors to come.
Mack is particularly fond of cutting up maps and charts, turning yards of disused code into ravishing bolts of design. Graphs are converted into little mats, placeholders for your eyes; a field of primary color becomes the “index” for a sun-drenched, photorealistic landscape. Even bodies of water can be sampled in this way: Mack takes images of streams and virtually weaves them together like a network of scarves, retaining the flow and sound of the river.
Seeing geography overtaken by pattern, I was reminded of a Daft Punk single from 1997, with its super-addictive chorus that traces an arc again and again (“around the world, around the world”). Mack has a use for every scrap of stray design that comes her way, taking the offcuts from one culture and stitching them into a new piece. Even when we discard it, pattern never really goes away: somehow a thread gets caught in the giant machines of industry, and before you know it, an obscure form has spun into mass circulation.
While you were sleeping, pattern has been busy at work: stacking and slicing, wrapping up benches and bicycles, transforming their context in a manner similar to yarnbombing (where I assume the intent is to kill a huge object with kindness, overwhelming it with tiny soft strokes). The locomotive of design here recalls the scene in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) where Meryl Streep’s editor describes a shade of blue that has “quickly shot up in the collections of eight different designers” and “filtered down through department stores … that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs.” All of the colors in this film – the blues, oranges, the bright clarifying reds – are insatiable, surprising us with their drive and their enterprise. Enticing bits of color are tilted toward us for delectation, as if to say, “Buy me! Stroke me!” Sometimes they waltz before us in poetic slo-mo, doing a parody of dignity.
Pattern doesn’t have to be a tessellated grid: almost any implication of place or movement can be décor, laying the “grounds” for the next image. A shadow, sound, or action can be made to figure like a carpet, to stutter like a vocal sample. In this witty version of remixing, the flash of color becomes the film’s beat (the editing and sound supervision was done by Fern Silva, another great talent in experimental film). Shapes phase in and out of abstraction: sometimes projecting words, or dialing up nonsensical amounts of detail, like QR codes disconnected from their sponsors.
What comes through is the idea that pattern is process – there is no end to the number of permutations for the eye. This film has the joy of Henry Hills’ great Arcana (2011), another epic collage that viewed style as a kind of colorful parasitism. In The Grand Bizarre, patterns are hyper particles of kinetic energy, heeding the call to assemble like the dancing letters in Sesame Street. Sometimes they are like flocks of colored birds, dispersing according to rules we don’t know, and with harmonic progressions attached. We hear the exhalation of a female voice when a starburst is released; there is a life force that breathes into these images, sighing with satisfaction when a design is achieved.
Pattern, despite its suggestion of internal order, is constantly on the move: a force of nature bent on self-preservation. Designs that are no longer needed can be pushed down and pulsed, as if through a set of digestive tubes; they are mulched into different textures and colors. Bits of flyaway pigment are like irrepressible pop memes: fluttering and migrating, spilling over borders and forming new islands. Color is always on the run, travelling around the world, around the world.
* * *
Unless otherwise indicated, all images are courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Media. Screenshots are from the trailers.