Hung on epochal vortexes, the 'Nature versus Nurture' debate swirls around the unsettling films of art house actor-turned-auteur Brady Corbet. His startling debut feature The Childhood of a Leader (TCOAL), co-written with his Norwegian filmmaker wife Mona Fastvold, depicted the interwar origin of a fascist leader in three youthful tantrums, as the 20th century lurched once more towards earth-shattering disaster.
Vox Lux – meaning ‘voice of light’ – presents a very different beast: the plastic fantastic domination of narcissistic K-hole diving pop star Celeste, as played by Black Swan’s Natalie Portman contemporaneously, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s Raffey Cassidy as a 90s teen, with both performing original songs by Sia.
An avatar for this century if ever there was one, Staten Islander Celeste’s instant fame is born in the bloody aftermath of a Columbine-like school shooting when, recovering from a grievous wound, she sings at a now all-too-familiar candlelit vigil. Accompanied by her keyboard-playing sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), the music industry beckons, coached and cajoled by a dubious manager (Jude Law) and commanding publicist (Jennifer Ehle).
Sonorously narrated by Willem Dafoe and once more punctuated by chapter headings, Cassidy plays Celeste’s daughter Albertine when we leap forward to a post-9/11 world where such attacks aren’t uncommon, and are amplified by 24/7 news and social media outrage.
"It’s not very healthy, this desire to rewrite the past or to try and control the present"
An unmistakable link binds these grotesque geneses. “I have a deep and sincere existential dread about the flow of time and history,” Corbet levels. “I’ve struggled with this my whole life. Sometimes when I reflect on my very, very small place in the universe, I feel almost as if I am on a boat or an aeroplane, moving very, very quickly, rushing forward, and there’s nothing I can do to control it.”
It’s tempting to see these films as personal therapy, though one with limits, he acknowledges. “It’s not very healthy, this desire to rewrite the past or to try and control the present, because it’s something which is absolutely impossible.”
Not that Portman’s glorious scenery chewing or the mischievous timeline tweak of TCOAL are all melancholy. “Both films actually have a very wry sense of humour,” Brady agrees. “They’re quite playful in a way, made specifically with a bit of wink, because the subject matter is utterly grandiose.”
Shot in a whirlwind 22 days, of which Oscar-winner Portman was on set for 10, Corbet eschewed rehearsals and opted for long takes, partly to make the most of the budget, but also to allow his actors more freedom. “I remember Natalie and Raffey were like, ‘do you want us to behave in the same way, to have the same mannerisms?’ And I was like, ‘no, no, no, not even a little bit,” Corbet says. “It’s super brutal, we cut to 15 years later and it’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s a totally different character, because that is so surprising, it’s so exciting.”
He particularly admires this ability in Martin, who also played the French teacher and object of fascination of young dictator-in-waiting Prescott (Tom Sweet) in TCOAL. “She has this Bressonian quality about her, where she doesn’t do anything to signpost the character’s behaviour for you. And that’s something that I get really crazy about, is that actors often want to tell a story, which makes sense, and yet I’m always asking them to abandon that. I want every scene to be a surprise, so you shouldn’t get too settled into the role in terms of who somebody is and how they behave, because they take sharp left and right turns.”
Corbet’s aversion to overthinking character is part of the reason he ditched acting, despite a sterling run with the likes of Michael Haneke (Funny Games), Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria), Mia Hansen-Løve (Eden), Lars von Trier (Melancholia) and Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin).
“As much as I could, I was seeking out filmmakers to work with because I realised I was interested in the films themselves, not just the possibility of playing a role,” he says. “I realised after a while that maybe that was a little bit problematic for my career as an actor, because you have to love the characters you play and the technique of bringing them to life, and I wasn’t that interested.”
Legendary musician Scott Walker’s scores pierce both films, with Corbet insisting no one has had more impact on his work. “My entire teenage experience, I was fascinated by him, about how bold and direct his compositions and lyrics were. The fact that he blends these sort of baroque, grotesque and absurd elements, and you would have this feeling of something which is direly serious and seriously absurd, which for me has a lot of resonance when you’re talking about the flow of time and our recent history.”
Corbet says he immediately realised he had found someone from his tribe, much as he felt on first meeting Fastvold. “When I met my wife, she and I were completely unavailable, but I somehow knew, even though it took many years to actually do anything about it, that I had discovered someone I was meant to meet. And because I’m not a magical thinker, it’s an amazing feeling when that happens.”
The creative marriage with Walker is a perfect fit for the peculiar fascinations of Vox Lux and TCOAL. “Part of the reason they tend to provoke very strong reactions one way or the other is because they are very discordant films, they are always in an opposing key,” Corbet says. “I’m always thinking about imbalance and how to make that as perfect as possible. Where minimalism and maximalism can kind of live together. The way that Glenn Gould plays the piano, that’s how I want actors to perform. It’s without intent. And that austerity, when you start just saying the words, it means that it’s like an empty vessel for the audience to project their own feelings onto, and I think that that’s really, really interesting, so I guess I think of cinema in a very musical sort of way.”
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Watch 'Vox Lux'
Wednesday 30 December, 10:20pm on SBS World Movies
Genre: Drama, Music
Director: Brady Corbet
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Willem Dafoe (narrator)