It may be hard to believe now, but shortly before Natalie Portman won her Best Actress Oscar for the 2010 psychodrama Black Swan, multiple cultural critics wrote think-pieces openly pondering whether or not she was any good at acting.
At the time, the question actually made sense. Black Swan is such a wildly over-the-top movie that Slate's Tom Shone suggested Portman's fiercely committed turn in it was just "a special effect." Prior to Black Swan, over the first 15 years of her career, Portman flitted so easily between arty indie films and big-budget blockbusters — with performances ranging from intense to strangely flat — that Nathan Heller compared her to the kind of high school overachiever who joins a dozen extracurricular clubs, but really only belongs in two or three.
Since Black Swan though, Portman has starred in another, very different Oscar-nominated movie, 2016's Jackie. She's also appeared in a couple of Terrence Malick films, and become a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thanks to two (underrated) Thor adventures. For the most part, she's been more selective about the jobs she takes lately. She works less and with a clearer sense of purpose.
Portman's year has been bookended by two of the most exciting and unusual films of 2018. In February, she starred in the eerie, philosophical science-fiction horror movie Annihilation — a box office disappointment, but a critical favorite, with Portman singled out for her performance as a scientist who confronts her personal pain while exploring a mysterious alien zone. And starting Dec. 7, in select theaters, she's starring in Vox Lux, playing a self-destructive pop music mega-star who's spent her whole career being idolized and analyzed.
Vox Lux is, to say the least, not a movie for the masses. (Although I also wouldn't have expected a film as weird and operatic as Black Swan to become a smash hit, so who knows?) Written and directed by the adventurous young actor Brady Corbet, Vox Lux is divided into two distinct parts, each a little under an hour long — and with only the second featuring Portman. Audiences may well spend the first half of the picture wondering whether the star on the poster is ever going to show up.
As for the second half ...
Well, it's best not to spoil the second half for anyone who hasn't seen the movie yet. Suffice to say part one of Vox Lux is a whirlwind: beginning in 1999 with a shocking act of violence, and then zooming through two years in the life of a kindly teenager named Celeste Montgomery (played by Raffey Cassidy), as a shrewd showbiz manager (Jude Law) grooms her for the big time, without preparing her for the emotional and psychological toll of being famous.
Part two then takes place entirely over the course of one day, in 2017, as the adult Celeste (played by Portman) prepares for a big homecoming concert in New York, in between dealing with the press, spending some time with her family, and managing her various neuroses and addictions. It's not giving away too much to say that the film ends with footage from the big show, made all the more tense and thrilling by the time the audience has spent watching Celeste's turbulent life, up to that very moment.
I don't mean to imply that Vox Lux is filled with surprising plot twists, because it's not really that kind of movie. It's more that the film's so off-kilter and enigmatic that figuring out what Corbet's driving at from scene to scene can itself be pretty compelling — at least for those willing to hang with the picture, wherever it goes.
Is Vox Lux supposed to be a commentary on how teen-friendly pop is its own kind of religion, inspiring devotees and heretics? Is it more about how celebrity culture unites the masses but burns out the people in the spotlight? Or is it maybe just an excuse for Corbert to let Portman cut loose?
If the latter is all there really is to Vox Lux, that's still plenty. It's not that hard to draw a line from Black Swan to Jackie to Vox Lux, and see how they're linked by the star's physicality and laser focus.
In Black Swan, she's a disciplined dancer who has to tap into her more unfettered sexual desires to become an artist. In Jackie, she's a socialite who leaves her stamp on an entire nation by wielding the only powers granted to her: planning parties and decorating. And in Vox Lux she's a singer who's helped the world weather multiple disheartening acts of terrorism with her music, leaving her exhausted in every sense of the word. In all three films, Portman pushes her body, her voice, and her emotional register to a far edge, pulling back only to better-emphasize the contrast between "normal" and "full tilt."
Vox Lux is reminiscent of several other movies about musicians on the brink of collapse: including the Oscar-nominated 1979 Bette Midler vehicle The Rose, and Bradley Cooper's soon-to-be-nominated 2018 hit A Star Is Born. Vox Lux may be too experimental — and cynical, for that matter — to win over the Academy, but Portman alone could well make the cut. That's how "phenomenal" she is, to use the film's own favorite term of art.
If she does get an Oscar nod, it'll probably be because of one amazing scene, where Celeste sneaks out of her hotel for a lunch with her teenage daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy). Celeste treats Albertine to an impassioned monologue that's part loving motherly advice and part unapologetic justification for past mistakes. It's fast-paced and full-bodied, and made more tense by the possibility that at any moment Celeste might lose control and start snapping at everyone in the diner. It's an absolutely riveting 10 minutes of acting.
Or is it "acting?" Vox Lux, like Jackie and Black Swan before it, won't do much to quell critics of Portman who complain that her biggest parts are a little stunt-y with a lot of scenery-chewing. (Pre-Black Swan, one of Portman's most acclaimed roles was in Amos Gitai's 2005 Israeli drama Free Zone, which begins with an unbroken five-minute close-up of her crying in the back of a taxi.) But what Portman at her best actually proves is that it's possible to go big on-screen and still capture something small and true.
In fact, that's one of the major themes of Vox Lux. The movie considers how a cultural icon can have profound meaning to so many, despite her personal flaws, because her fans come to see her as a symbol of endurance. Celeste is someone who lives her life to the max, courting scandal with her love-life, her partying, and her opinions. Then she comes back down to Earth periodically to describe how all this feels, in simple, relatable human terms.
That's what Portman does too, in her most daring roles. She's clear, direct, immediate. She's a declarative sentence in a bold font, with just a few curlicues.