The answer is “Vox Lux,” which appears to represent a change of tack. The setting is modern America, with a brief excursion to Stockholm, and the subject (the aural subject, at any rate) is pop music. There is even a joke about abba. We start with a narrator (Willem Dafoe), who introduces us to a child named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy). “In the beginning, she was kind and full of grace,” he says, as if telling a fairy tale. Cut to 1999, when Celeste, a schoolgirl in Staten Island, “thirteen going on fourteen,” is caught in a violent calamity. The less you know of it in advance the better, but Celeste is lucky to survive. On the other hand, her response—a keening lament, which she writes with her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) and sings live on national TV—earns her a flicker of celebrity, which, far from guttering, becomes a blaze.
To an extent, Celeste resembles one of those Disney-cradled child stars, like Britney Spears, who arrive early at fame and never really leave, except that Celeste’s public persona is forged not among cartoon mice but in the residue of horror. Her nightmare, needless to say, is a publicist’s dream, and the arc of her subsequent career, during which she grows into a globally recognized performer, bends to the temper of the times. The sight of terrorists, years later, committing murder while wearing masks copied from one of her music videos may be an affront to her image, but so what? Her brand still gets a boost.
For those of us whose hearts habitually sink at the prospect of a Hollywood bio-pic, Corbet’s films are a tonic. Scorning the grind of steady chronological progress, he jerks us onward and makes us fill in the gaps. Suddenly, we see Celeste walking down a New York street with Ellie and an older man, his expression acidic and grim. They proceed in slow motion, like the worn-down Berliners at the start of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Serpent’s Egg” (1977), another premonitory fable. In fact, the girls’ companion is a manager (Jude Law), who will guide Celeste’s ascent to the stardom that is promised in her name. Already, we notice how much determination, and how little visible pleasure, are involved in that rise; Celeste responds with precocious aplomb to a record-company executive (Jennifer Ehle) and drives herself to master choreographic routines, as if some internal motor had been set spinning and cannot be stopped.
After fifty minutes, the movie takes a fresh leap, to 2017. Celeste is now played by Natalie Portman. And what playing: the accent has broadened into a snarl; the hair is slicked back, piled high, or daubed with a dazzle of silver at the sides when Celeste is due onstage; and the hands are never still, plucking, splaying, pushing up the sleeves of her jacket, or slamming the table in a diner because the manager has the nerve to request a photograph. If the young Celeste was preternaturally mature, this later model is youthfully brattish, like a parody of a spoiled adolescent. Is Portman overdoing it here, hamming the trashiness to the limit? Or is she furthering the brave exploration of mania that she initiated in “Black Swan” (2010)?
Personally, I reckon that Portman tips “Vox Lux” off balance. The simple act of drinking through a straw is turned into an embarrassing megaslurp. Other actors get shouted down. Maybe, however, that’s the point—not that poor Celeste was shoved into the spotlight by a traumatic event but that popular renown, in a saturated age, is itself a prolonged form of trauma, warping the body’s motions and wrecking any chance of equanimity. No wonder her rapport with Ellie, once so trusting, is irreparably frayed. Lady Gaga, in “A Star Is Born,” is far more stirring than Portman but also, strangely, more innocent, alive to the prospect of happiness. Corbet’s film rejects that hope, suggesting that no sooner are you born, as a star, than something within you begins to die.
Hanging over “The Childhood of a Leader” was a dark and thunderous score by Scott Walker, and he returns with new portents for “Vox Lux.” By way of contrast, we also get a string of bright, insistent songs by Sia, composed for the movie, and delivered with conviction by Raffey Cassidy—in one case, from the back of a motorbike—and then by Portman. The heroine’s mantra is as basic as a diktat: “I don’t want people to have to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.” Resistance is useless.
The ending consists of a show. The same goes for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and Rami Malek, as Freddie Mercury, commands the crowd no less majestically than Portman does, but the crowning glory of Queen is meant to warm us, whereas Celeste, in her pomp, emits a cold robotic zest. Sure, she’s only giving a pop concert, back in her home town, among the faithful, and we see nothing scarier than ranks of young girls, many of their faces radiant with glitter. Yet their Dionysian act of worship feels uncannily close to the political ecstasy that concluded “The Childhood of a Leader,” and, again, we sense a crack—some kind of buried flaw that runs below a prosperous society and drives its inhabitants to extremes. Though nobody talks about the crack, we feel it in the breaking of family dynamics, and we hear it in the deep pulsations of a song. Brady Corbet’s second film is not a departure from his first, still less a renunciation. It’s a sequel.