Natalie Portman has a unique talent for playing high-strung, demented, creative types and I say that with the highest praise. Reminiscent of her role in Black Swan, in Vox Lux, Portman once again portrays a talented artist-in this case a singer-songwriter driven to achieve greatness and fame, as she’s plagued by personal demons. The film is reminiscent of her performance in the horror film, Black Swan. Both films depict creative, ambitious young women who make enormous sacrifices on the altar of their ambitions, and their stories can be interpreted as cautionary tales of losing oneself in the manic pursuit of an obsessive goal. However, their journey takes them on different paths with very dissimilar endings. While one is clearly a victim of the artistic process, the other is portrayed as a vapid narcissist willing to go to any lengths to achieve fame, notoriety, and money. These films are noteworthy because they express the artistic experiences and struggles of women in high-profile creative fields-continuing a positive trend of films featuring strong female-driven stories about women pursuing creative endeavors, including, most recently, the celebrated performance of Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born.
While neither film is likely to be lauded as uber-feminist, the tour-de-force performances of Portman should be. The lady has serious acting chops. In Black Swan, the character of Nina is compliant, meek, insecure, desperate to please, submissive to the vigorous demands placed on her by the stern ballet master. In Vox Lux, pop star Celeste is a hardened, flamboyant, uncompromising pop star with a penchant for being confrontational and temperamental. The characters possess different qualities, but there is one trait they both share-a steely desire to succeed, to reach the pinnacle of their vocations and a willingness to risk everything to achieve it. This impulsive drive to succeed becomes all-consuming and eventually leads both into self-destructive behavior. This manifests itself in different forms of physical abuse. Celeste struggles with a drug and alcohol substance abuse, while Nina punishes her body with harsh, overly-strenuous dance sessions, self-mutilation and anorexic behavior, not to mention the harsh demands of her overbearing mother. Celeste is portrayed as no one’s victim: the survivor of a school shooting that transforms her into a worldwide musical sensation. If Celeste suffers, it’s not for her art, but for fame. Nina and Celeste could not be more different, but Portman does a remarkable job of depicting the inner turmoil of both women, making their self-destructive impulses of the characters not only believable but refreshingly human. Both endure struggles with which many women can relate-that feeling of never quite measuring up to impossible expectations of others and taking extreme measures in an attempt to do so.
In an industry where there’s long been a dearth of challenging female roles, it’s easy to understand why an actress of Portman’s intelligence and talent was drawn to both of these films. Similar to her characters, she takes creative risks in her career choices, often taking on edgy roles in small budget films. These intimate films are exactly the type of fare that studios no longer want to produce, and but for her participation (and star power) these movies would probably have not been produced at all. She had by far more critical and commercial success with her role in Black Swan, winning both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Actress. Her performance in Vox Lux received mixed reviews which is surprising given that Portman fully commits and disappears into the role of the heavily made up brash pop star who is unable to get through a meal at a diner without getting into a near physical altercation with the manager. Celeste bears no resemblance to the elegant, dignified Portman. This discrepancy could indicate a preference (both from critics and audiences) for actresses of Portman’s stature to portray women who still possess a vulnerable, childlike quality and are then victimized and ultimately destroyed by the creative process. Celeste is the sort of tough, morally complicated female character whose relentless desire to be famous can make her less endearing, and thus less acceptable to film-goers and reviewers.
These are two very different films exploring different themes regarding success in the creative world. Even the final performance scenes are filmed in starkly different manners. Black Swan captures the beauty, splendor and pageantry that is Swan Lake before Nina fully transforms into the Black Swan. Vox Lux features a concert scene performed in an arena which only serves to highlight the superficiality and vapidness of Celeste’s singing career-bubblegum pop music performed to lame choreography and tacky costumes, all of which serve to demonstrate how far Celeste has fallen from her younger days.
Black Swan is about the desire for perfection while Vox Lux director Brady Corbet gave an interview with THE GUARDIAN where he explained, “the movie is about the desire to be iconic.”
In an industry obsessed with profit and awards, let’s hope that the studios have the good sense to continue producing films that show a diverse portrayal of women in artistic endeavors. In order for this to happen, powerful women in the film industry, like Portman, must continue to choose meaty, serious roles and not allow themselves to be relegated to fluff parts in forgettable films.
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