My favourite part of film has always been a character’s relationship with the story. What interests me is how how through a certain set of circumstances that the characters find themselves in, a change is induced to the point where the character at the start is unrecognisable from the one at the end; their resolve is tested only for them to remain consistent and unwavering; or all shades of grey in between.
In Vox Lux, we are through the narration of Willem Dafoe introduced to Celeste. It is there where this rather unspectacular child, from a family with economic struggles is presented to us. The most interesting points made from the opening monologue are contained in the following:
“In the beginning, she was kind and full of grace, and at least she wrote her own lyrics. No one could take that away from her.”
The motivation behind writing this examination of Celeste’s character arc is because, to little surprise, I disagree with the general consensus view that throughout the film’s events, Celeste was a victim; be it of her socio-economic status, her shooter, her sleazy agent, her sister, or of any other circumstance.
In the opening act – Prelude – Celeste is the sole survivor of her class, in a horrifically graphic school shooting. She takes a bullet to the neck which becomes lodged in her spine for the rest of her life. While she recovers in her hospital bed, her sister Eleanor becomes her sole source of comfort. It is during this period where Celeste is at her most vulnerable, she writes the song that would propel her into stardom. ‘Wrapped Up’ is an ode to her sister. An examination of the lyrics shows an incredible sense of desperation that if not for her sincerity and the palpable nature of the circumstances, would almost border on pathetic.
“Hey, turn the light on
‘Cause I’ve got no one to show me the way
Please, I will follow
‘Cause you’re my last hope, I’ll do anything you say
And I tried it my way
Epic fails save me from myself
So, bite my hands now
Shut my mouth down I will listen, listen well.”
We also get a glimpse of how grateful Celeste is for her sister at this, her lowest point. Her vulnerability to her internal demons being shared. She needs her sister more than anything.
“And I’m so lucky to be with you
Keeping me from my shadow
I know I would have been torn to shreds
But all the people in my head.”
At a memorial event for her fallen classmates, Celeste performs ‘Wrapped Up’ in front of an emotional public audience, and of course in front of many camera lenses. It is here where her transformation begins. You can actually identify the exact moment where the vulnerable, defenceless, and emotionally broken child, transforms into something else.
Her performance begins beautifully understated, with only a couple of flashes from photographs being taken from the sombre audience. As she hits the refrain the frequency of the flash photography increases dramatically, reflecting the intensity of her delivery. Following this is the most subtle of cracks of a smile. She has them, she knows it, and she likes it. On a side note, the acting from Raffey Cassidy in this scene is among the best I have seen.
Our experience of the performance is interrupted by the familiar voice of the narrator, who informs us that on the advice of a producer, she changed the lyric in her song from “I” to “we”. This song must have been so important to her considering the circumstances of its inception, but she made that change. She sold her pain as being “our” pain, a smart business decision as our narrator informs us.
Over the course of the following scenes Celeste demonstrates an early domination over her agent, aka The Manager; perfectly portrayed by Jude Law. The general consensus is that this character is the embodiment of the sleazy music producer, however I personally believe he has been harshly misinterpreted. From my perspective he is but one of the victims of the Celeste Express. Celeste is certainly no victim of his. From their first on-screen interaction we see the manager take her out of an uncomfortable situation in the recording booth and give her a pep talk that recalls a prior interaction where he gave her the advice of pretending she is alone in the room and nobody is watching. He puts her in a relaxed mindset. However, in their interaction he drops an F-bomb in a completely non threatening manner as her sister Eleanor walks by. Despite taking his appreciative advice Celeste chastises the manager and demands that he watches his language around Ellie. It is the first of many examples where Celeste asserts her dominance over him. Once recording is over we see a young Celeste taking the lead in her business meeting with the record label. Despite The Manager attempting vociferously to protect her from negative comments, she again displays her dominance over him and takes the lead. He takes the back seat, but again we see that he is simply trying to protect his client; not his client’s interests, but the client herself.
These are the first instances in which we see Celeste as being obsessively dominant, evidently an attempt to break away from that feeling of hopelessness when she was at the mercy of her shooter in the school massacre.
As the story progresses, “the inseparable sisters” are taken by The Manager to Sweden to record further tracks for her album, where they would have, as our narrator tells us “many uniquely first experiences.” These experiences were in the main Celeste exploring the Stockholm nightlife under the wing of her more experienced sister.
“Before the massacre at New Brighton, Eleanor might never have dared to share these more disgraceful aspects of her recreational appetites with her young sibling. But considering all the suffering Celeste had endured, she was surely old enough now to engage in the more pleasurable parts of adulthood also. Celeste felt alive, creative, and autonomous, in command of her own destiny.”
We can see here the care Eleanor has for her sister, even probably going beyond her own realms of comfort, to ensure her sister who suffered so much could have a good time. After one such night of partying, where they became blind drunk, the sisters were due to fly home. The Manager was irate at the girls for betraying his trust in them, but also because this resulted in him failing the trust the girls’ parents placed in him. He undeniably cares for their well-being and respects their parents. In spite of having to discipline the girls for whom he is responsible, he cannot stay mad at them for long, and immediately gives them the good news that Celeste will be recording a music video. The idea that he doesn’t have a genuine soft spot for them is ludicrous.
One of the final sequences we see in Celeste’s youth is when she walks in on her sister Eleanor and The Manager in bed. Despite having relationships of her own, as the narrator points out, she became “haunted by the ephemeral image” of that nocturnal encounter, and it resulted in her having feelings of betrayal and exclusion.
“From that day forth, the girls’ paths diverged, and the two sisters were forcefully pushed towards opposing severities of their characters.”
Examining this it becomes clear that Celeste became more unrepentantly dominant, and Eleanor became more submissive and apologetic. In simple terms, the power dynamic between the two was forever switched.
As we move into Act II of the story, named Regenesis, we are presented with a powerful and dynamic, grown up Celeste, now portrayed by Natalie Portman. Her obsession for power and dominance higher than we could have ever imagined from that innocent young girl.
When we first see The Manager in this act, his first act is to ask one of the makeup team how Celeste is. Upon hearing that she looks tired a worrisome look emerges upon his face. After all these years, with that one look you can see he still cares for her wellbeing. The fact that moments later he struggled with how to inform her of the shooting in Croatia, knowing how that might bring back bad memories for her, should solidify his current motives. He tries to comfort her, letting her know “people are gonna be on your side” after he informs her that they were wearing the masks she used in a previous music video.
When we are reintroduced to Eleanor, Celeste is also present. Eleanor is very sheepish, and as The Manager kisses her on the cheek to greet her, she pulls away uncomfortably and Celeste looks away. This is still an uncomfortable situation even after so many years.
During lunch with her daughter Albertine, the callous side of Celeste with respect to Eleanor is on display. When she is told that Eleanor is upset because she doesn’t try to see her anymore, Celeste becomes irate. Eleanor has never complained about the hand she was dealt, but Albertine can tell that Eleanor always wanted to be a performer. Her mother’s reaction was very harsh, reflective of the spite she still holds:
“Hey, what can I say, you know? Your Aunt Ellie has too many scruples, and sometimes life just isn’t that fair.”
Her reaction when she meets Eleanor following this encounter is especially ruthless. First chastising her for allowing Albertine to possibly be pregnant, and second for “feeding her” with the aforementioned information. Eleanor faces a barrage of ugly slurs and all she can do is sit there sheepishly, whimpering “I don’t understand how you can hate me so much”, the response to which is that she is an ungrateful sow! Only when Celeste threatens her physically does she threaten to expose the fact that she raises her child and writes her songs, which puts a pause to the conflict for the time being. Later on when she realises she needs Eleanor to look after Albertine again, she grabs some flowers from her hotel room and sends a note on a scrap of paper which reads “I’m sorry, I’m a bitch xx”. It’s a meaningless and empty gesture. She just knows she needs her to continue looking after her daughter… and she knows she will.
Earlier in this scene she walks in on The Manager giving an inconsolate Albertine a comforting hug, to which we can see Celeste reacts very uncomfortably, clearly having the memory of him and Eleanor replay in her mind from years earlier. Later on she uses sex as a bargaining chip to manipulate him into getting her some drugs mere hours before her big show. In spite of his initial resistance we get more evidence of her control over him and her obsession with power.
Moments prior to the final act – appropriately labelled FINALE – just before her show, to which she has turned up completely drunk and high from her partying with The Manager, Celeste has a complete mental breakdown. Both The Manager and Eleanor try to snap her out of it in the best way they know how. First The Manager plays tough, initially shouting and telling her not to behave likes a spoilt brat, but then encouraging her to get it together whilst in his fatherly embrace. It is at this point where he uses the “you’re the only one in the room” motivational words that he used in her first visit to the recording studio all those years earlier. Eleanor then takes over with a softer, more motherly approach. She hears out Celeste’s insecurities, telling her that she isn’t going to die (something that is still playing on Celeste’s mind) and that she is so grateful that she is alive. She then indulges her ego to boost her confidence before she goes out for her performance.
During the performance we see Eleanor and Albertine in a huge crowd of energetic joy, looking emotionless. The contrast between these two who actually know the woman in lights and the rest is quite telling. But as the show progresses you can see them become as captivated as the rest. These are two people who have been completely emotionally destroyed by this woman, and still they are captivated by the power of Celeste. Hearkening back to the sisters’ youth, I find it interesting from a thematic point of view that the filmmakers chose Stockholm. By the end of the film it becomes clear that this was allusion to the Stockholm syndrome that everyone in Celeste’s orbit experiences.
The film ends with the narrator telling a story from the two sisters’ past, of Celeste telling Eleanor of the devil visiting her, granting her a second chance of life but with the mission of bringing great change to the next century. In this moment he said to her “Shut your eyes and repeat after me: One for the money, two for the show. On three we get ready, And on four… come with me.” Aside from that telling us that all this time, the narrator of this story was the devil himself, the line “One for the money, two for the show…” is the same one young Celeste uses at the end of a performance in Act I, where her downward spiral began. In spite of what appears to be a moment of clarity at the end of the film, Celeste, an agent of the devil, hasn’t really changed at all.