Fame is a tricky subject for established actors, especially ones with such recognizable faces that they can never fully immerse themselves in a role. In “A Star is Born,” director-star Bradley Cooper’s grimy and soulful installment in a decades-spanning tradition of tackling the rags-to-riches saga, Lady Gaga embraces the opportunity to endow a familiar showbiz drama with renewed intimacy. The established performer becomes a veiled weapon for her fragile character — a rising phenom named Ally — whose uncertainty about her talent is upended by our knowledge that she has it in spades; it doesn’t take much needling from Cooper’s renowned hard-drinking rocker Jackson Maine to drag it out of her.
“A Star is Born” may be a timeless formula, but the subject has particular resonance when our crazed media circus exploits creativity at any opportunity, only to spit it out the moment the juices run dry. And so, that remake has landed on the fall film festival circuit with an evil twin: “Vox Lux,” writer-director Brady Corbet’s fascinating, bleak enigma about the self-destructive path of a pop star who epitomizes the shifting temperaments of a country at odds with itself.
As the coarse, moody singer Celeste, Natalie Portman deliver a stormy interpretation of an icon saddled with a culture that projects its sentiments onto her. Beginning with a traumatic high-school shooting and culminating in a performance that feels like a very different sensory assault, “Vox Lux” is a jarring deconstruction of the industry that “A Star is Born” explores in more familiar terms.
Both movies deliver on vastly different ambitions. As a director, Cooper borrows more heavily from the John Cassavetes playbook than the story’s precedents, with a naturalistic drama that sticks close to its tearjerker potential without overplaying its sentimental hand. Of course, he’s mining a lot of obvious territory here, and from the moment Ally wanders out of the garage from her service job singing a gentle tune and the title card comes up, “A Star is Born” telegraphs its intentions hard and fast. There’s nothing particularly shocking about a story that finds the disheveled Jackson drawing Ally into his orbit, developing a touching romance, and catapulting her to unexpected new heights of appreciation. His substance-abuse problems enter the movie right on cue; as Ally’s career gains momentum, his own begins to wane. It’s a straightforward disconnect that gives these effective performers room to play, but Gaga’s dynamic screen presence elevates it beyond the realm of cliché. Her own cultural evolution in the public eye imbues the archetype with renewed authenticity.
Portman, on the other hand, brings a near-cartoonish intensity to her monstrous singer that elevates the movie to surreal heights. Corbet’s fascinating narrative unfolds across two time periods: In the first, set in the years leading up to 9/11, the teenage Celeste (breakout Raffey Cassidy, terrifically subdued) survives a near-death experience that leaves many of her classmates dead; when she sings a gentle ballad at a memorial service, it goes viral, instantly propelling her to national attention. Under the guidance of her foul-mouthed new agent (a wacky Jude Law), she travels to New York and Europe with her sister (Stacy Martin). The girls are eager, wide-eyed neophytes, dragging the narrow worldview of their Christian background on the road even as they discover the prospects of a hard-partying lifestyle. Corbet, whose daring stylistic approach shifts gears every few minutes, represents this process in sped-up home video footage as narrator Willem Dafoe deadpans about their experiences. Then 9/11 hits, and Dafoe puts national circumstances in context: While the nation mourned the school shooting through the youthful purity of teen Celeste, in the wake of 9/11, it lost its innocence along with her.
Enter the next chapter: Portman careens through 2017 scenes, where Celeste has become a jaded, hedonistic trainwreck. No matter how she’s put the attack behind her, the darkness comes in waves, and now she’s dealing with the fallout of a media whirlwind when terrorists wearing masks from her music video engage in a violent mass shooting. Considering her response while rolling her eyes, she swears and flaunts her attitude at anyone in vicinity, including her estranged daughter — played by Cassidy again, highlighting the surreal meta-commentary at the movie’s startling, provocative core. These aren’t really people; they epitomize a cycle of spoiled virtues that never really ends. While Gaga may be channeling Judy Garland in her role as a natural performer, Portman resurrects the unruly force of Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence,” elevating the concept of an energetic train wreck to metaphorical terrain.
As a result, the two movies stand at a significant crossroads: “A Star is Born” explores the intimacy of stardom often obscured by the spotlight, while “Vox Lux” unearths its mythological ramifications. Their effectiveness depends on which experience audiences prefer to engage. “A Star is Born” offers emotional depth to spare, and delivers the musical goods time and again, in large part due to Gaga’s booming voice and raw screen presence. Portman, however, often looks as though she might pop off the frame alongside the movie’s big ideas. In a mesmerizing climax, her character performs the title album in a colorful set overloaded with blinding lights and glittery costumes. Ironically, Celeste looks markedly similar to Gaga’s stage appearance years before she polished up her act. Together, they illustrate dueling relationships to the celebrity machine. Whereas “A Star is Born” celebrates the perseverance of a beloved figure in the public eye, “Vox Lux” illustrates the psychological toll of being starved for attention.