Vox Lux might be great. I've watched it three times now; each time I've become more convinced of this notion. And if it is great, its greatness derives in no small part from the voiceover narration of Willem Dafoe.
Dafoe guides us through the life and times of Celeste (played as a teen by Raffey Cassidy in the first half of the film and by Natalie Portman as a 31-year-old star in the second half of the film), a pop star who burst onto the national scene following a school shooting at the turn of the millennium. Injured in the Columbine-style event, Celeste pens a song with her sister to commemorate how she feels about the tragedy. Captured by news cameras, the song becomes a cultural sensation, catapulting her into pop stardom in the months before 9/11 scars the national psyche.
The second half of the film picks up 16 years later: Celeste is a bit of a mess, drugs and drink having taken their toll. But now she's ready for her comeback, and this last hour of the film tracks a single day, the first of a new tour. A show is scheduled to take place in her hometown, but before she can get there she'll have to navigate a tricky situation thrust upon her: another mass shooting kicks off this portion of the film, this one in Central Europe. The killers committed their crime while wearing masks made famous in Celeste's first music video all those years ago.
Director/writer Brady Corbet keeps the narrative tightly focused on Celeste. The only time we stray from her are moments near the beginnings of each half of the movie, when we see the killers plan their shootings. In order to give the film a grander scope Corbet deploys a voiceover, and Dafoe's God's-eye view and gravelly voice give the rather intimate proceedings a sense of grandeur and scale and hopelessness that nothing else in the film could possibly convey.
It is through these voiceovers that we learn the true nature of the pop music industry, as when Dafoe explains why, exactly, a disproportionate number of the best producers are Swedes: "Stockholm was home to what business scholars and economic geographers call an ‘industry cluster,' an agglomeration of talent, business infrastructure, and competing firms all swirling around one industry and one place. In the 1940s, church leaders and cultural conservatives rallied together around a solemn mission: to safeguard the country's youth against the degenerate music that was being piped in from America. To combat this threat, municipal schools of music spread across the country, to offer morally uplifting instruction in classical music."
And it is through this voiceover we are treated to pronouncements about the meaning of our moment. For example: "In the year 2017, Celeste would be 31 years old, prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present which had reached an extreme of its cycle—and there was no imagining what forms it, or she, may assume." Or, after delivering a particularly bizarre answer at a press conference: "Celeste had been led here by example, making loose proclamations akin to those made in vogue by the government officials and public representatives of her era. She was frightened, and wanted to hide."
Voiceover narration is, sometimes, a lazily used tool designed to paper over storytelling missteps. But, like any tool, it is only as useful as the person wielding it. As Farran Smith Nehme noted in an essay about The Magnificent Ambersons for that film's recent Criterion release, Orson Welles's mellifluous narration is "an extraordinary performance. … Nothing but Welles's voice could have achieved that gentle mockery of the rich Midwesterners and their privileges." Indeed, the best portion of Ambersons is the initial 10 minutes or so, as Welles describes the decline of civilization that culminated in the rise of the automobile.
In the words of Corbet and the lachrymose tones of Dafoe, Vox Lux‘s voiceover is similarly indispensable, a weary recounting of the traps modernity has laid for itself and the unctuousness of celebrity in a world where the news never stops and we only exist as long as the headlines focus on us. Dafoe's narration, when combined with Scott Walker's score and Sia's original songs, give Vox Lux a compellingly hypnotic quality.