The 54th Chicago International Film Festival opening weekend addition of Von Lux, writer-director Brady Corbet’s arresting portrait of an international pop icon in crisis, screened last night as a late festival addition and as great films often go, it divided the crowd into those who fell for the movie’s feverish faith in its damaged goods anti-heroine and those who were truly bewildered. I ultimately swung to the former camp, won over by Natalie Portman’s galvanic second act character, unlike anything she’s done before. Portman implodes—and then explodes—as Corbet’s caustic, unfiltered, deeply troubled superstar. It’s a performance of flamboyant theatricality and the star’s dominant intensity really shakes you. A manic, manipulative and hilariously candid control freak, her international music superstar Celeste is haunted by dark demons of the past.
Thrust into fame as an adolescent after surviving a school massacre, she’s barely functional 17 years later and makes life a miserable hell for those in her private sphere while onstage she brings joy to the masses. Portman is wicked smart, broad, loud, she sings and dances through five Sia-penned songs (!) and lets it rip in every scene. It’s one of the two best female performances this year and there’s not a trace of anything she’s done before. You simply cannot take your eyes off her. Vox Lux has an undertow of tragedy from its opening scene and a cold, detached cynicism about the manufacturing of a pop personality who becomes, in her own way, a scandal-ridden, inhuman techno-machine with buried PTSD lashing out at journalists, paparazzi, managers and even family while trying to hold onto an elusive fame. As a director, Corbet sometimes feels self-serious and as if straining for auteur cred by playing with conventions like unorthodox credits and unnecessary, hyperactive narration and time-lapses. But the picture’s real strength is Portman, who wounds everyone around her, including us.
Tonight: A star-studded screening of Steve McQueen’s festival favorite Widows, shot in Chicago and to be attended by McQueen and stars Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo. AMC River East 21, 7pm, followed by Q&A. Tickets here.