I have a running theory about Rachel McAdams and Natalie Portman. I think the former is more telegenic when expressing emotions such as joy, exuberance, mirth, while the latter is favored by the camera for anxiety, ambivalence, despair. Vox Lux, Brady Corbet’s second feature as director, stars Portman and only strengthens this impression. But even in Celeste’s (Portman) on-the-edge neurosis, Portman still isn’t the perfect fit for the character’s exuberance.
I’ll be the first to say that it’d be a minor miracle for anyone to pull off the role of adult Celeste without a hitch. She’s histrionic because of neurosis because of a lack of mental filter/compartmentalization because of PTSD, portrayed in long takes of rapid-fire dialogue, all capped with an actual pop star (mini-)concert. I’m honestly at a loss as to who would be the ideal actor; maybe Amanda Seyfried in a pinch?
Or maybe the problem lies in Corbet’s rigid adherence to the script, which he also wrote. The film is meant to be a sociocultural critique of celebrity culture, but partly because the narrator (Willem Dafoe) focuses almost exclusively on Celeste, it functions as a two-part character study (Raffey Cassidy plays the young Celeste, to the same unsettling effect as Tom Sweet as the young protagonist of Corbet’s first film, The Childhood of a Leader (2015)). And as a character study, the film should’ve let Portman improvise and riff on a predetermined set of topics for each scene. Instead, we get what Richard Brody rightly calls “calculation” in her line delivery, most noticeable when her words are supposed to be a direct reflection of her zigzagging thoughts, like in the diner scene.
Brody is also correct in nailing Portman’s acting talent to her physical expressiveness; her most moving performance in V for Vendetta (2005) is when she’s being processed into V’s jail—all face, no words. In this, she’s also a contrast to Rachel McAdams and her eloquence more verbal than physical.