This study of publicity, celebrity, and the effects of fame is an intense, chaotic ride, moving rapidly from documentary format to rock video or concert footage, from family drama to social commentary, often with little segue to prepare the viewer. The breathless format, and the deliberately scattered and non-linear plot, are part of the story, along with the frequently changing look of the film, making it necessary for the viewer to acclimatise and simply absorb the story as presented. It’s an unusual, rather bold approach by writer/director Brady Corbet, similar to his first film, Childhood of a Leader (2015), which also told a story without a conventional plot. Corbet’s two films have one other feature in common: any message contained in the story is buried, subtle and indirect almost to a fault, leaving only the occasional line or reference as road signs through the, at times, seemingly aimless narrative.
Natalie Portman gives a fierce, audacious performance as Celeste, a successful pop star whose unexpected fame in her teens has taken its toll on her life, her health, her relationships, and her mental stability. We don’t actually see Portman for the first thirty minutes. The film begins – following an unusual scrolling of the film’s full credits over silence, a bit like the slow raising of a stage curtain – with what appears to be a scene out of a biographical documentary on the life of Celeste. Rough home movies of Celeste as a child are accompanied by voice-over commentary (by the unseen Willem Dafoe), which describes her early life in a slightly ominous way suggesting bad things to come. The invisible narrator continues to occasionally reappear, to offer insight on Celeste’s life as it progresses. The seminal event in Celeste’s life takes place when she is fourteen. She is present when a disturbed fellow student enters her classroom and shoots her teacher, then threatens the classroom full of students – a situation which is filmed in fairly gruesome detail. Celeste is able to placate him, and offers to stay with him if he will let the others go. Although left with a permanent injury, Celeste survives the attack, becoming something of a folk hero; and when she and her sister, Eleanor, compose a song inspired by the incident, it becomes incredibly popular. Celeste is offered a recording contract, and her musical career is underway, driven by a highly publicised tragedy and carried along by her association with it.
The young Celeste’s (played by Raffey Cassidy) initiation into fame is followed closely, treated as a loss of innocence on many levels. Her inexperience with public performances, her discomfort with notoriety, and her tentative and sometimes disastrous experiments with adult life (including a pregnancy at fifteen) are shown in fleeting scenes which give a general impression of her experiences. She is still able to talk about the school shooting with a childlike honesty and thoughtfulness – something which will not last. We are soon moved forward to find Celeste at the age of 31, a well-established, glamourous musical legend with countless fans. She has become brash, cynical, and all but addicted to her own popularity. Her daughter (also played by Raffey Cassidy) has been raised primarily by Celeste’s sister, Eleanor, and considerable distance has grown between them; but the daughter’s manner suggests there are bigger concerns. Very gradually, the effects of fame on Celeste are revealed.
Natalie Portman’s bitter and strident performance is what holds the film together throughout, but it is in the second half of the film that it becomes essential. Her Celeste becomes the central focus as her longstanding struggles – with insecurity, substance abuse, loneliness, and anger – start to grotesquely surface, along with troubles with the media, who no longer treat her as a noble victim and have taken to pointing out her flaws and misconduct. Following an unsuccessful attempt to reconnect with her daughter and sister, she emerges from a series of drug binges, emotional outbursts, and disastrous interviews to finally take the stage in a lengthy, elaborate final act, during which the adoration of her fans seems to temporarily blot out her other troubles. The above-average pop music used in Celeste’s stage performance, as well as much of the soundtrack, was composed mostly by well known singer/songwriter Sia, in collaboration with a team of others, and it one of the film’s strong points.
The message of the film, which deals with the toxic effects of media attention, the contrast between media images and reality, and the blurring of the line between public and private, does not come across clearly enough. There are bits of dialogue that act as markers turning up periodically, pointing out the significance of what is taking place, such as a music producer altering the words of Celeste’s heartfelt first song to increase popularity; a group of terrorists wearing masks from Celeste’s music video during a mass shooting; or her eventual confusion of public relations with actual facts. There are a few telling moments that stand out – or would stand out, if they were not quite so understated – such as a shot in the finale of Celeste’s sister and daughter in the concert audience, sadly and cynically watching what they know to be a façade of confidence and wholesome sentiments, but ultimately being swept up in the show along with the rest of the crowd, their knowledge of reality overcome by spectacle. The film is not completely successful as a vehicle for what could be intriguing ideas, but the fine acting, interesting approach and look, and the overall entertainment value of the basic story make it enjoyable – and the message worth looking for as well.